Aberdeen moving to vacate campers along the river as of June 1

An agreement between the city of Aberdeen and property owner Michael Lang has given Lang until June 1 to clean up his land along the Chehalis River where homeless campers have been staying.

The agreement subjects the campers to trespassing violations as of June 1, City Attorney Eric Nelson said last week.

Bill Sidor, the city’s code compliance officer, said the deadline was agreed upon at a meeting between Sidor, Lang, Nelson and Mayor Bill Simpson.

In addition to the June 1 deadline, the agreement also stipulates that the city will post notices on the property advising people who enter the area that they are doing so at their own risk.

“We’re not going to specify a precise date and time where we’re going to arrive with some Black Maria (paddy wagon) and everybody gets into the bus and gets driven away,” Nelson said.

The collection of camps on Lang’s property, dubbed “Rivercamp” by campers and their supporters, has been a site for trespassing campers for years. Lang’s agreement with the city comes more than a month after Sidor posted the original order to vacate on tents in the area. That required campers to be gone by March 31.

Campers and their supporters came to the following week’s city council meeting and pleaded for an extension to find alternative living arrrangments. Simpson and Sidor extended the campers’ time on the river for several weeks, and volunteers have led a clean-up effort since early April with the hopes that cleaning the property would buy more time for the campers.

More than 10 tons of trash were hauled out of the area, said Aberdeen resident Shaney Frame Crosby, who led the cleanup effort. The work came with donations from throughout the community, including LeMay Inc., which donated work and trash bags. The city also donated equipment and manpower to load and haul away trash.

Local businessman Tim Quigg said Puget Sound Pacific Railroad had donated about 300 tons of railroad ballast, rock that has been spread out over paths to reduce the mud. Quigg himself donated a portable toilet, several trash collection containers and firewood to be shared among campers.

Nelson acknowledged the benefits that came with cleaning the area.

“Frankly, the efforts that the trespassers have made on the property to self-police a little bit and to help clean up a little bit are helpful,” he said. “But I’ve tried to make the city’s message clear that we have no intention of authorizing, permitting or allowing a permanent encampment to take place on Mr. Lang’s property, and we’ve never taken the position that people are going to be allowed to do that.”

Lang made it clear that his only concern is to sell the property, which he said had become increasingly difficult to do with campers occupying the area.

“It’s been going on a for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t suffer to pay for that property to just have it be a tent camp.”

Most campers along the river last week were unaware of the impending notice. Sara Michelbrink said she lived in the area throughout the summer and fall of 2014, but now lives in town. She called the notices “a huge problem.”

“They don’t have anywhere to go,” she said, standing a few yards from the camps. “A lot of places they do have the opportunity to go are in town and they have no way to get there, or they’re in other states or other towns.”

John Gullotto, who’s lived in the area since last summer, said he would have to leave Washington altogether once the notices were posted. The local shelters, he said, are too crowded.

Val Metropoulos, a pastor with Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Aberdeen, noted that the clean-up efforts by campers and volunteers had been done with the impression that it would extend their time in the area. Shirley Owens, another camper, echoed that sentiment.

“I was pretty disappointed that that kind of decision was made,” Owens said. “A lot of people were pretty upset too after being so excited about all the positive feedback we were getting for a little while. To have this kind of blow to the liver — they were really disappointed.”

Owens said there’s also been talk of moving and setting up campsites across the river.