Spokane Valley could soon crack down on people who own more than five cars, camp on private property or live in RVs, but some say the move would be heavy-handed and clash with the city’s laissez-faire identity.
The Spokane Valley City Council will vote Tuesday on proposed amendments to the city’s nuisance laws, a set of rules designed to prevent properties from becoming dangerous to public health or aesthetically unappealing.
If council members approve the changes, camping in a backyard as an adult, living in RVs for more than 30 days and leaving a large collection of cars out in the open will become illegal.
City Council members have been working on the new laws for more than a year. The primary intent isn’t to improve neighborhood aesthetics, they say.
“We’re talking about critically nasty public health and disease issues,” City Councilman Arne Woodard said.
Spokane Valley’s nuisance code already includes a lot of prohibitions.
A homeowner can’t graffiti their own house. No one can hold more than three yard sales in a year. It’s illegal to leave an uncovered hole in a lawn if it presents a “concealed danger.” Unless it’s hidden from sight, a property owner can’t have a broken airplane, sofa or refrigerator sitting in their front yard.
But even with that laundry list of nuisance codes, the city keeps running into properties that enrage neighbors without violating the letter of the law. The neighborly fury often gets directed at homeowners who have lots of cars, live in RVs or allow camping on their land.
The proposed camping amendment initially caused outrage at a City Council meeting. The original language would have banned camping stints longer than 48 hours and limited a property to four camping sessions a year.
“I’ve never heard of anything so stupid. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves,” Dan Allison told the City Council on June 14. “This is Spokane Valley.”
Allison told council members that he strongly opposed any law that would prevent kids from having fun in their backyards during the summer.
Staff’s second attempt at the draft ordinance uses less specific language.
It would make camping illegal except for “periodic short-term use of a tent for recreational camping purposes by minor children when a parent or legal guardian is the primary resident of a legally established habitable dwelling on the parcel.”
City Council members didn’t voice many concerns about the revised camping law. But they don’t all see eye to eye when it comes to the RV amendment.
If adopted as written, homeowners will only be allowed to have one RV on their property. City staff said that living in RVs often becomes a public health issue when individuals empty their sewage tanks onto the ground.
Anyone wanting to live in an RV or have a guest stay in one on their property would need to get a temporary use permit from the city. That permit would be good for 30 days and a property owner could only get one per year. City Council members have suggested $25 would be a reasonable figure.
City Attorney Cary Driskell said the purpose of the permit wouldn’t be to generate revenue. It would allow the city to track how long an individual is living in an RV. Living in an RV is already illegal in Spokane Valley, but staff have a hard time enforcing the law.
The ordinance allows people to stay in RVs longer if their house is under construction and also lets the city manager adjust the rules in the event of a quarantine or other emergency.
City Councilwoman Laura Padden questioned the need for the RV law. Having more than one RV doesn’t inherently make someone a nuisance, she said. Neither does living in an RV.
“I think we need to focus on the serious problems, like crime, safety, health – which are legitimate areas of governmental action,” Padden said.
City Councilman Ben Wick said he’s in favor of placing more restrictions on people living in RVs because the situation creates a health hazard, but he shared some of Padden’s concerns and called the RV proposal “too invasive.”
A private property owner shouldn’t be capped at one RV, he said, adding that he believes some Valley residents probably flee to their RVs in summer because they don’t have air conditioning.
City Council members also are divided on proposed vehicle restrictions.
Under the new ordinance, properties would be capped at “five total operable vehicles on a parcel with a single-family dwelling.” The law includes an exception for properties with more than five licensed drivers.
A property owner could, in addition to the five operable vehicles, have one RV and one “vessel on a licensed trailer.”
Spokane Valley is also on the cusp of changing its junk vehicle law.
The city currently allows a private property owner to have two junk vehicles, so long as they’re “completely sight-screened by maintained landscaping, a maintained landscaped berm, or fencing.”
Under the new ordinance, property owners would be limited to one junk vehicle or unlicensed vehicle. The limit doesn’t apply if the vehicles are placed within a “lawful structure” and shielded from outside view.
Wick said he’s mostly opposed to the proposed vehicle restrictions. Having a lot of cars doesn’t seem like a health risk, he said.
“It just seems wrong to me,” Wick said. “We’re setting ourselves up so those that have garages can have more cars and those that might not be able to afford a garage can’t.”
Allison said during a July 12 meeting that he opposes the vehicle restrictions.
“They may not sit in a proper place that the city would like them to sit,” he said. “But this is America, man. This is our property. You can’t come on somebody’s property, tell them their stuff is junk and have it hauled off.”
John Harding, a regular attendee at Spokane Valley City Council meetings, said he appreciates the intent behind the draft amendments. At the same time, he called them deeply flawed.
“If you’re not impacting somebody’s sense – their smell and their vision and their sense of hearing – live and let live,” Harding said. “I’m saddened to see this concept coming to the Valley. I expect it in the city. I expect it in Seattle and other places. But not here. Doggone it, this is a mistake.”
Woodard said he supports the amendments but emphasized he sees them as an unfortunate necessity.
“Generally, I’m not after whether you paint your house or your grass is a foot high,” Woodard said. “You want to let your property devalue and depreciate that way, that’s your choice as an American.”
But one property owner’s rights have to end when they start to infringe on the rights of others, Woodard said. He said the city’s laws should have “some semblance of reasonableness” and need to protect public health.
Unused cars can leak chemicals which contaminate soils and threaten the water supply, Woodard said. Plus, he said those cars can become havens for rats, skunks and other animals that carry disease. Rodents can attract predators.
“A coyote in your neighborhood is not a fun thing,” Woodard said.
City Councilwoman Brandi Peetz said she believes the city needs to tighten its nuisance laws.
“We have speed limits. We have seat belt restrictions. We have things we don’t necessarily want to do, but at the same time it’s for the health and safety of our community,” Peetz said. “Some people ruin it for everybody, so you have to have rules.”
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