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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley Councilman Al Merkel’s neighbors have an issue with his car collection

Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel received a warning for violating the junk car ordinance, possibly for the 1972 Chevy Cheyenne pickup parked in front of his home on Thursday. Editor's note: This caption was changed on Feb. 26, 2024 to correct information about how Spokane Valley code enforcement responded. The city gave Merkel a warning, alleging he was in violation of the city's junk car ordinance.  (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Before Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel started ruffling feathers on the city council, he was irritating his neighbors.

Merkel grew up in a car family and has carried that passion into adulthood, amassing a collection of vehicles at his home in the Ponderosa neighborhood near the Phillips Creek Trailhead. At any given time, Merkel has up to nine vehicles parked in his garage, driveway and on the street of his home in the Valley.

It’s that collection, and the general appearance of his property, with which Merkel’s neighbors take issue.

“I know Al. I like Al. He’s very civicly minded,” neighbor Eric Pirttima said. “But his style with the cars just does not fit.”

There have been at least 10 complaints filed against Merkel since 2021 for violating the city’s ordinance regarding junk vehicles, according to documents obtained in a public records request by The Spokesman-Review. Many of the complaints describe his property as an “eyesore,” and say trash and materials stored in or around the vehicles wind up drifting through the neighborhood and onto surrounding properties.

Pirttima, who’s lived in the neighborhood for decades, has filed one of those complaints himself. He said there was no ill will behind it. He would just like to see Merkel’s property match the aesthetic of the other homes on the block, with their manicured lawns and cars kept in garages to keep driveways mostly clear.

“We’d just be happy if Al cleaned up his act a little bit, and looked around to see what the other neighbors are doing,” Pirttima said.

The most recent complaint, filed with the city earlier this month, resulted in Merkel receiving a warning notice that he was in violation of the unlicensed and junk car ordinance passed last November. He has until March 6 to bring his vehicles up to code.

Merkel notified The Spokesman-Review of the warning after he received the letter, saying he wished to be transparent and wasn’t sure if the complaint was politically motivated.

It was Merkel’s third warning notice for violating city code. In August 2021, Merkel received a letter from Spokane Valley code enforcement that cited the code regarding accumulation of materials, garbage, recyclables, furniture and machinery.

Just over a year later, Merkel received another warning that cited the same section, as well as the junk car ordinance.

All of the code enforcers’ investigations into the complaints have been closed without Merkel facing any citations. He either was found not to be in violation, or addressed the violations within the allotted time frame given when the warnings were issued.

Still, Merkel’s neighbors take umbrage with what they see as a lack of meaningful changes to the way his property stands out in the quiet, suburban neighborhood.

“We’re all pretty frustrated,” said Steve Barnes, Merkel’s next-door neighbor. “I know there’s systems in place but nothing has ever changed.”

Barnes, a retired former principal at Lidgerwood Elementary School who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, said other nearby property owners have tried talking to Merkel about their concerns.

Merkel said he did not recall ever being approached by any of his neighbors regarding his collection.

Barnes said they have a cordial relationship, and that he likes Merkel. But he would like to see the lawn attended to more frequently, and the collection of cars relocated.

“This is a nice neighborhood that takes great pride in the yards, streets and everything,” Barnes said. “And we can walk by and see oil stains in the driveway or on the street, or stuff blowing down the driveway.”

“We’ll have people come over and say ‘Holy crap, what happened next door?’ ” he added.

Where his neighbors see junkers, Merkel sees collectors’ items.

“I enjoy working on cars, it’s one of the things I enjoy most,” Merkel said.

His collection includes a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, a 1972 Chevy Cheyenne pickup, a 1986 Suzuki Samurai, a 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ62, a 1991 Honda Civic RT4WD Hatchback, a 1995 Mitsubishi Montero and a newer BMW sports car he keeps in storage elsewhere during the winter.

Some could fetch a high -value bid from the right buyer and if the car is in the right condition.

All of the vehicles, plus his wife’s SUV for daily commutes and a company van for their pet grooming business, are on the property or surrounding streets. The Charger and the Samurai are the only ones kept in the garage.

According to city law, a vehicle is a junker when it meets three of the following four conditions: It’s 3 years or older; it’s extensively damaged; it’s apparently inoperable; it’s worth nothing more than the scrap metal it contains.

Property owners are allowed one junk or unlicensed vehicle, so long as it’s kept in a garage, behind a fence or otherwise out of sight. There is an exception for project cars that are being repaired or rebuilt, so long as the work is completed in a timely manner.

The most recent warning Merkel received was for apparent unlicensed vehicles that code enforcers spotted after following up on the complaint.

Merkel said he did not realize his unlicensed Chevy pickup was a violation of the ordinance passed in November and that he did not realize how much city code had changed.

Spokane Valley law hadn’t previously mentioned unlicensed vehicles.

He registered the orange pickup after receiving the warning, he said, and he plans to install a pair of Washington license plates from 1972 – the same year as the pickup.

The rest of his vehicles have collectors’ license plates, or have a valid registration and restored plates that are from the same year as the cars. Vehicles with restored plates do not need to display current tags, but must have a current registration.

In order to qualify for restored plates, a car must be over 30 years old, be able to be driven on a highway and must be owned and operated as a collector vehicle, meaning it can be used only to drive to and from auto shows and other special events, for testing purposes or for the pleasure of others without compensation.

They can not be used as daily commuters, and Merkel said he does not use any as such.

“I just have a passion for making things work, which connects to what I’ve been doing on the city council,” Merkel said. “You know, being able to fix things that are mechanically put together with my own two hands.”

Merkel said he intends to speak with his neighbors to find a satisfactory way for everyone involved to move forward. He worries the discourse may give people a false impression that Spokane Valley is not a welcoming area, or that it does not value property rights.

“I love my neighborhood,” Merkel said. “I care very much about Ponderosa. This is the area I grew up in. I’ve tried to maintain it as a welcoming environment for single family homes.”

Pirttima said he appreciates what Merkel is doing now as a city councilman by challenging the systems in place, soliciting community feedback via social media surveys and working to increase governmental transparency.

But as a neighbor, he would like to see Merkel make some long-awaited changes.

“He seems inclined to civic engagement,” Pirttima said. “But I’m very much of the mind that if you can’t take care of the homestead, how are you going to take care of Spokane Valley?”

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Feb. 26, 2024 to correct information about the four-wheel drive system in Merkel’s 1991 Honda Civic hatchback.