Karl Schulz has been camped out in a recreational vehicle alongside a Spokane Valley city park for about two weeks. Although the RV isn’t blocking traffic, police and code enforcement officers drive by and knock on his door daily asking him to leave.
“If you own an RV and you live in that RV for a certain amount of time, you pretty much have to act like a vagabond,” he said outside his RV at Balfour Park, not far from City Hall. “For some people, that’s all they can afford.”
The popularity of the vehicles is strong – even growing – in Spokane Valley and the region, as evidenced by sprawling dealerships along the Interstate 90 corridor and RV parks on the city’s outskirts. It’s not uncommon in Spokane Valley to see RVs parked along neighborhood streets or in driveways, especially during summer. Yet while some residents have relatives who stay in RVs for a few days during seasonal visits, some people are occupying them for longer terms, even year-round.
Spokane Valley doesn’t have an ordinance prohibiting people from urban camping – or living – in RVs along city streets, unless their stay exceeds 30 days.
However, Spokane Valley city attorneys are working on a proposed ordinance to tighten the period an occupied RV can remain on city streets, cutting it by half, or even two-thirds.
Cary Driskell, city attorney for Spokane Valley, said an ordinance likely wouldn’t address RVs parked on private property.
“It will address issues of people using a camper or trailer as a dwelling unit,” he said. “We are working on coming up with clearer language on prohibitions.”
Although urban camping hasn’t been a pronounced issue, the city wants to take action to reduce impacts to neighborhoods, he said.
There’s potential hygiene issues from RVs dumping black water and garbage. And, there’s also safety issues if a car hits an RV that’s blocking the right of way, Driskell said.
The city’s code enforcement department has received more than 20 complaints regarding urban camping and “nuisance RVs” over the past year via email and through the city’s online CARES complaint system, according to public records obtained by The Spokesman-Review.
In those complaints, residents state that they’ve observed RVs hooked up to the water and power of local homes, or blocking access to streets.
“For months, (this residence) had an RV motorhome parked in the street in front of their home with people living inside of the RV,” one resident wrote. Another complainant stated, “This RV has been parked for several months in this area … Is there anything you can do? Can he truly legally park his RV here and hang his belongings on someone’s fence?”
Schulz said RVs can be a “home away from home,” or they can provide shelter for homeless folks who don’t have a more permanent residence.
“Some people, they are going to be homeless … but if they can get an RV at a good price, they’re sheltered enough to stay warm in the winter,” he said. “Not everyone is going to be borderline homeless. RVs have saved a lot of lives. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be living in it the rest of your life.”
Spokane Valley Police Department Lt. Matt Lyons said notification of RVs parked along city streets is mostly complaint-driven by citizens, but it’s difficult to prove how long they’ve been parked there and, as a result, code enforcement is tricky.
Along with its proposed nuisance home ordinance, the city brought forth a discussion to regulate urban camping at a December council meeting.
While the city adopted the ordinance, the City Council requested additional research from city staff for a potential ordinance addressing urban camping, Driskell said.
City staff is looking at ordinances implemented by other jurisdictions and is considering time limitations for RV parking – whether that be seven, 10 or 14 days, Driskell said.
The city of Spokane implemented an ordinance in 2011 that restricts RV parking on streets to 14 days, while Seattle is grappling with how to address a failing safe lot program for homeless people living in RVs that was implemented in 2016.
Mayor Rod Higgins said he doesn’t have a time frame in mind for how long occupied RVs should be parked along city streets, but will defer to options presented to the council by the city’s legal department at a future council meeting.
“There will be a pretty good discussion on it,” he said.
Councilman Arne Woodard said a 14-day time frame for occupied RV parking is a starting point, but wants to see the proposed ordinance before making any decisions.
Woodard said he has compassion for transient people, but RVs can’t possibly meet the needs of a house. He added that code enforcement across the city right now is an issue.
“If two-thirds of the city does not have curbs or sidewalks, or things that designate the right of way … how are you going to enforce it? Is code enforcement going to measure it?” he asked. “At some point, there’s going to be an ordinance, but we don’t have enough enforcement to do it now.”
Although urban RV camping is listed on the city’s advance agenda as a pending item, there isn’t a date set for when discussion will occur.
As for Schulz, he will be moving his RV.
“There’s going to be people that think that square Winnebago has got to go,” he said.
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