Lacey City Council approves camping ban the second time around

Lacey City Council unanimously approved a camping ban ordinance on Thursday, giving the city a tool to stop people from setting up camp or parking their RVs on public property.

The council tried to pass the ordinance two years ago, but tabled the proposal amid public concern.

About 50 people attended Thursday night’s meeting. The council typically doesn’t allow public comment on items already on the agenda, but Mayor Andy Ryder took questions from the audience and several people addressed the council.

Some spoke out against the ordinance, but many were confused by it, saying it was unclear. Ryder called it a “first step.”

The approved ordinance makes it “unlawful for any person to store personal property, including camp facilities (tents, vehicles) and camp paraphernalia” in any park, street or “any publicly owned parking lot or publicly owned area, improved or unimproved.”

Violating the ordinance would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment not to exceed 90 days, or both, according to the ordinance.

However, if police determine the person living out of the tent or RV is homeless and has no where else to go, the officer will determine if adequate shelter space is available. If shelters are full, a citation will not be issued.

If shelter space is available, the officer, at his or her discretion, will provide directions to the shelter or transportation to the shelter.

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The ordinance was touted as a way for police to engage with those camping on public property. Lacey Police Chief Ken Semko said now, if a person refuses to talk to police, officers have no choice but to walk away.

“This ordinance will give us the legal authority to speak to them,” Semko said.

The ordinance is legal within the context of a recent federal court ruling involving the city of Boise that found that cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on streets if they have nowhere else to go, according to city attorney Dave Schneider.

He emphasized that officers are prohibited from enforcement if shelters are full.

“We do believe that this ordinance is in accordance with current law, including the Boise decision,” councilman Lenny Greenstein said.

Lacey does not have any shelters, but the city does help fund shelters in Olympia, including giving $50,000 to help add beds at the Salvation Army in Olympia.

Meanwhile, the Lacey Planning Commission has been working on proposed changes to city code that would allow more than just faith-based organizations to host sanctioned homeless camps. And the city is working with Thurston County on a proposed regional homeless mitigation site at Martin Way and Carpenter Road.

Ryder acknowledged Thursday’s discussion had a “cart-before-the-horse” feel, but he said the city needed to start somewhere.

“We are working on it, but we’re not quite there yet,” he said.

Among the many questions raised during Thursday’s discussion: If someone is living in an RV and directed by police to a shelter, what happens to the RV? Schneider said the “ordinance did not contemplate that exact scenario,” but it could be amended in the future.

Councilwoman Carolyn Cox, who testified against the ordinance two years ago, voted for it this time.

“I’m in deep sympathy with those living on the street and the people trying to help them. I also understand that unsanctioned camping in parks and streets and City Hall presents a public health threat,” Cox said in prepared remarks.

“After much thought, research and conversations with staff and community members, I have decided to vote yes on the camping ordinance. I have faith in our police department and staff to take a compassionate approach while keeping the unhoused and the housed alike safe.”

Follow more of our reporting on Homelessness in Thurston County

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Rolf has worked at The Olympian since August 2005. He covers breaking news, the city of Lacey and business for the paper. Rolf graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1990.