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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County to sue WSDOT over Camp Hope

A basket of mums blooms among the tents at Camp Hope on Friday after fencing was installed around the east Spokane homeless encampment. Spokane County is planning to sue the Washington State Department of Transportation over the encampment.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County plans to sue the Washington State Department of Transportation over Camp Hope.

The Spokane County commissioners on Tuesday afternoon authorized the county prosecutor’s office to file a lawsuit against the department to pursue “the abatement of nuisance conditions” at the large homeless encampment along Interstate 90 in east Spokane. The resolution, which is supported by all three commissioners, was not included on Tuesday’s agenda.

Department of Transportation spokesman Joe McHale said Tuesday evening he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because he had only just learned about it. Camp Hope sits on Department of Transportation land at Second Avenue and Ray Street.

The county’s lawsuit comes less than two weeks after Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announced he intended to clear out Camp Hope by mid-October. The sheriff has since pushed back his timeline to mid-November at the request of Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward. He hasn’t provided specifics on how his office plans to clear out the site.

The Department of Transportation has said it hasn’t attempted to disband Camp Hope because Spokane lacks the shelter space to house the approximately 600 people reportedly staying there. 

Legally, Spokane County will argue that Camp Hope constitutes a “nuisance” as defined by both county and state law

Nuisance laws are often used to prevent property owners from accumulating trash and other materials, such as junk cars. With a Superior Court judge’s permission, counties and cities can remove nuisances from public or private property without the owner’s permission and make the owner pay for the removal. Woodward in September threatened to sue the Department of Transportation for violating the city’s nuisance laws.

Commissioner Al French said Knezovich could clear Camp Hope on his own, even if a Superior Court judge rules against the county.

“The sheriff has the authority to do what he’s doing, but if we had the judge validate that and be able to allow all the stakeholders to participate in that decision, it just makes the decision stronger,” French said Tuesday afternoon. “Everybody will have their day in court and we’ll let the judge decide.”

Woodward on Tuesday morning wouldn’t say whether she supports Knezovich’s plans to clear Camp Hope.

“I would say that we are working with the sheriff to make sure that whatever we do with the encampment is going to be successful for the people in the encampment and the community around the encampment,” she said.

City spokesman Brian Coddington on Tuesday evening did not say whether the mayor’s office supports the county’s planned lawsuit against the Department of Transportation.

“The city is continuing to meet with the state about conditions at the WSDOT camp and a plan for moving people off of that property into housed situations as soon as possible,” Coddington said.

Spokane and state agencies have been meeting weekly about Camp Hope, but the city’s relationship with the state has been acrimonious – at least publicly.

After the city in early September threatened to sue the Department of Transportation, saying it expected Camp Hope to be vacated by Oct. 14, the state fired back with a scathing letter, accusing Woodward of being more “preoccupied by optics than action.” The state wrote that imposing deadlines was counterproductive and that finding housing for those staying at Camp Hope will take months, not weeks.

Woodward has repeatedly said she wants Camp Hope to be emptied before winter. She said she asked the sheriff to push back his deadline to November in order to ensure that the city can prepare housing for the hundreds of individuals living on the site.

“We don’t have the transitional and permanent housing available right now,” Woodward said. “We wanted to make sure that we did have a place for people to go, that we weren’t just breaking up an encampment so that people can just go with no direction and no better place than where they’re leaving.”

Woodward said that in addition to opening Spokane’s new homeless shelter on East Trent Avenue last month, her office is working to add capacity to the city’s existing shelters. The state Department of Commerce has made $24 million available to Spokane to find permanent housing for Camp Hope’s residents.

French said the commissioners support Knezovich, and that the county will work to disband Camp Hope even if its lawsuit fails.

“As a community, this is not who we are, and so I applaud the sheriff in saying we’re not going to stand for this, we’re going to fix it,” French said. “We can do better than this.”