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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Off the road again: City towing more abandoned RVs

If the bumper sticker adhered to its rear panel is any indication, the beige RV parked on North Crestline Street was once a retirement plan:

“Too old to work, too young to die, grandma and grandpa’s a goin’ bye bye.”

But who-knows how many years later, the 1983 Itasca RV wasn’t shuttling a carefree couple from one scenic spot to another throughout the 50 states. The RV had been unoccupied, moored to the curbside, for several weeks in the Chief Garry Park neighborhood.

The first complaint came from a neighbor on Aug 1. The second complaint came from city code enforcement on Aug. 14. The third, eight days later, was called in from yet another neighbor.

In that time, the city had fielded complaints about this RV and numerous others, which roll into neighborhoods and make a semi-permanent home out of little more than four thin walls and a platform on wheels.

On a brisk September morning, the RV in Chief Garry Park was about to hit the road again – this time, with its front axle hoisted in the air and hitched to a tow truck.

With a new burst in funding from the Spokane City Council approved in August, the city has reignited its efforts to tow dilapidated and abandoned RVs from residential streets, where city law says they can be parked only for 24 hours at a time.

In the weeks since the council replenished the program’s funds, parking enforcement officials have already ordered more than 20 RVs towed to a yawning, bare lot in northeast Spokane. Neatly arranged in a row that belies the mess often left inside them, the RVs will be kept until the grace period for registered owners to file a claim elapses.

Then, they will be destroyed. The only parts that can be salvaged and sold are the main beams of support and wheel bases.

Although city law allows RVs to be parked on the street for up to a day at a time, the Itasca RV on North Crestline was towed away without warning. Parking enforcement had that authority because the vehicle’s registration was more than 45 days out of date – in this case, it had last been registered in 2012 in Colbert.

While awaiting the tow truck from Evergreen State Towing to arrive, city parking enforcement official L. Morse knocked on the door to ensure nobody was inside. If there was, she would have given the occupants a handout detailing local services available to the homeless and offered them an opportunity to collect their belongings before the vehicle was towed. If the situation became confrontational, she was ready to alert Spokane police.

(Morse asked that her first name be withheld for fear of harassment or retribution.)

After several loud knocks, it was apparent this RV was empty.

Evergreen State Towing, which won the two-year city contract for towing services, arrived a few minutes later.

This RV presented a bit of a challenge. It was parked so close to the car in front of it that the tow truck could not squeeze in between. By sheer luck, the RV’s front door was unlocked. After popping it into neutral, the two parking enforcement officers pushed this multi-ton vehicle backward while Keith, the Evergreen Towing employee, held the wheel steady.

Just a few moments later, the RV was on its way to the Evergreen lot.

The 24-hour parking limit applies only to residential zones – it’s actually only a four-hour window downtown – and city code specifies that the owner should be actively loading and unloading.

“Nothing in this section permits the use of a recreational vehicle, motor home, trailer, or camper for temporary or permanent habitation in a street right-of-way,” the ordinance states.

In amending its contract with Evergreen State Towing in August, the council doubled the funding – from $50,000 to $100,000 – in each year of the two-year deal.

This year, towing responsibilities were turned over to parking enforcement.

“With the increase in issues with the neighborhoods, the neighborhood resource officers have turned that all over to us,” said Parking Enforcement Supervisor Teresa Kruger.

Previously, police handled towing responsibilities.Parking enforcement would issue a warning, followed by multiple citations. The case would then be transferred to code enforcement, which would notify the neighborhood resource officer, who would have the vehicle impounded.

Revenue for tow companies was available if the registered owner paid the fees or, if the vehicle went unclaimed, via auction or scrap fees.

With new funding expected to last the entire year, the city’s new approach to RV enforcement launched in January. By July, the city already exhausted the $50,000 it budgeted for 2019 and hit the brakes on the towing program.

Without the money to have RVs towed away, parking enforcement officers’ hands were tied. They could warn RV occupiers that they are in violation of city ordinance, but without teeth, Morse said that tactic would only “push it around,” not alleviate the problem.

“As soon as I give them a warning, they know. So they leave,” Morse said.

Last week, parking enforcement was joined by the police department and code enforcement due to an abundance of complaints from the neighbors around Coeur d’Alene Park in Browne’s Addition.

“One of the RVs that got impounded, I think it had seven complaints, so I’ve chased them from seven different locations,” Morse said.

Parking enforcement received the green light to tap into another $50,000 within a few days of the council’s vote, but that additional funding already has almost run out. It’s unclear where more money would come from.

To date, the city has completed the destruction of 53 RVs, campers, and trailers in 2019, and more than 20 others are impounded and awaiting their end. Though formalizing the funding mechanism is new this year, this is not the first year the city has towed RVs.

“Before this program we relied upon the charity of the individual tow companies. We had no mechanism to pay for the disposal and/or the recoupment of costs for the tow companies,” said Spokane Police Officer Mike Roberge, who works with parking enforcement on the towing program.

Previously, officials estimate that about 40 were towed per year, and there was no guarantee that they would end up destroyed or in a junkyard.

“There are still tow companies that have several junk motorhomes in their lots that need to be disposed of, but as you can imagine, they are not a hot commodity in their natural state. Some vehicles would be auctioned for as little as $2.18 and would immediately be returned to the street to be a blight again,” Roberge said.

More than just an eyesore, officials say they can be a hub for drug use and illegal activity.

“People don’t like having them in their neighborhood, especially with kids,” Kruger said.

The RVs are typically not maintained, and their owners typically don’t properly dispose of wastewater and instead dump it into dry wells along the street, which is illegal.

“They’re violating health and safety codes all over the place,” Kruger said.

In one case, one occupant of an RV was a felon and the other wanted for theft.

“They both went away. Then what happens? Now we’ve got an RV that’s definitely been abandoned, because they’re sitting in jail,” Morse said.

Complicating enforcement is the low barrier to purchasing an RV.

“They buy these at auction or sometimes they’ll trade them for stuff that they’ve taken from some place,” Kruger said. “So they’ll have these motorhomes that are not in very good shape – they’re basically rejects that nobody else would pay for.”

One RV posted to the Facebook marketplace this week can be had for $500. Devoid of punctuation, the description simply states “RV as is make offer lost title.”

Up to three parking enforcement officers spend their shifts responding to complaints every day.

“A lot of people think that we just drive up and down the neighborhoods just looking for issues. That is not what happens. We get between 30 and 70 reports of different types of vehicles a day, so every day our officers go out and try to address the complaints, Kruger said.

On one day this week, a secretary fielded five separate complaints on a single nuisance RV.

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