By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Would an RPZ be a better tool to discourage RV encampments on Harbor Avenue?
Creation of a new Restricted Parking Zone is one of the steps that residents of Harbor and Alki Avenues tried last night to get a panel of city officials to commit to taking. More than 60 people gathered in the sanctuary of Admiral Church for a promised progress report on concerns that local advocates had taken to the city in recent months. Chief among them: The return of RVs a few months after the August sweep.
But that’s just part of the 19-item wish list that they’ve been pursuing, titled “Top Priorities to Tackle Crime, RVs and Encampments, and Dangerous Streets” – see it here. Part of the purpose of last night’s meeting was to get updates. Here’s who was on the city panel:
Left to right, SPD Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Martin Rivera, night-shift commander Lt. Nathan Shopay, operations Lt. Dorothy Kim, SDOT’s Bill LaBorde, Parks and Recreation‘s Tom Van Bronkhorst, and West Seattle/South Park City Councilmember Lisa Herbold. As they presented updates, most – though not all – of the audience questions were held until afterward; many had been solicited via cards handed out as attendees arrived.
The meeting was facilitated by area resident Mike Gain, who along with others in a “leadership group” had met previously with city reps.
Gain told attendees that the city officials “have been very responsive to all our requests,” and expressed hope that we can “get things the way we want them.” He said the organization started with a condo meeting back in August, with Lt. Kim there. “It was very informative … and got us to realize they’re here to work with us as a neighborhood, listen to our wants and needs,” with the perception that collective action could make a difference. “We all need to become kind of the squeaky wheel (and) complain to the right people to get something done. We feel our government officials need to take care of us … We expect laws to be enforced. We’d like to see everything treated the same, equally. … And we’d like to see consequences for people who break our laws.” He mentioned multiple break-ins at his building “not to mention businesses and (other) residences.” He also contended that the Alki Trail is unsafe – an August sweep briefly changed that, but then RVs returned. “Encampments and RVs really are magnets for crime.”
The leadership group last met in October, he said, and the city officials asked them for a ranked priority list on which they could report back. So that’s what last night was about.
First up was Capt. Rivera, who addressed several of the points on the priority list: How to strengthen response to crime? “We’re a very very data-driven organization.” This area is the W1 district and might have 1 to 2 officers per shift. They either respond to 911 calls or do proactive work. There are also emphasis patrols – “individuals, on overtime usually, tasked to (attend to) a hot spot.” Those patrols also can be set up with “extra” people. Keep calling in, he urged, and that’ll help with staffing. Regarding crime related to RVs/encampments: “I disagree with the contention that 90 percent of people in RVs are criminals,” he declared. Some are, but, he believes nowhere near that many. He noted that the night shift has had emphasis patrols focused on areas including Alki and Don Armeni Boat Ramp. “We’ve had a lot of emphasis out there, a lot of people contacted out there, our people are out there engaging,” But “we need to build probable cause” before action can be taken.
Gain retook the podium and noted that regarding the RVs, yes, some seem to be homes, but others don’t seem to be occupied, “and for the life of us we can’t figure out why that’s allowed … most of us are compassionate people … (but) we just want laws to be enforced.” He then thanked SDOT for the newly installed speed humps and raised dividers, introducing LaBorde, who said “what we want to see now is what difference … those make.” Further action could include parking restrictions and more restriping. The group’s wish list included enforcement cameras; LaBorde explained that most are for school zones and red lights. New authority granted by the Legislature this past year requires a lot of study, new city ordinances, plus collaboration with SPD and the camera vendor, and “so far no one in the state” has tried it yet. Meantime, SDOT’s Vision Zero analysis will start coming out in January/February and that will start to shape the analysis, too. The wish list also included changes in scooter policy; LaBorde said that’s something that SDOT hasn’t taken on yet, and would require working with the scooter companies. Regarding further restrictions on overnight parking, with a request to start those at 11 pm: “We have some reluctance … we don’t want to restrict people from enjoying the area …” LaBorde said. “We want to see how the traffic calming works” first. Also, he pointed out that Parking Enforcement officers aren’t currently available overnight.
Next was Van Bronkhorst from Parks. He noted that he’s on the city’s Unified Care Team, a multi-departmental task force that coordinates homelessness response and meets at least once a week. They talk about encampment prioritization, among other things. Speaking about the Harbor/Fairmount cleanup earlier in the day, he noted that crews used an excavator and dealt with 10 tents, one structure, and at least 6,000 pounds of debris. They’ve ordered “no camping” signs and will regularly inspect the area, but if people see campers there again, he urged them to report via Find It Fix It. He said the Green Seattle Partnership plans a restoration effort in that area.
Regarding prioritization, he explained how that works with the UCT: Reports about encampment sites lead to inspection, Sites are ranked with points based on a variety of criteria, not just complaints. This one was prioritized because of the “large amount of debris.” Right now they’re dealing with more than 700 active encampments and it “takes time” to reach a resolution. Regarding RVs, he mentioned the Seattle Public Utilities-administered remediation programs – providing services, doing debris removal – he listed three of those in the area over the past month, totaling almost six tons. But, he stressed, it’s legal to own, drive, live in RVs – the time limits are the issue.
Regarding Don Armeni, he said that closing gates on both driveways nightly might cause more problems than it solves, such as keeping boaters from using the ramp early in the morning if a Parks staffer wasn’t available to open the gate. No final decision has been made, though
Next, Councilmember Herbold, who first clarified that “as a councilmember I am a legislator – I don’t enforce the law, set priorities, or determine the penalties. … I can’t say, for example, ‘you must go remove that RV’ – we have laws on the books … city departments have to prioritize their resources.” She said the citywide RV count in September was 267 – “the departments are taking complaints from all across the city and trying to use an objective way to determine the impacts … the struggle is enforcing the laws because of a lack of resources.” Herbold explained that the council has allocated money for “RV safe lots” but the city has yet to spend it – the money’s been transferred to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and that a contract has been issued to LIHI to site, build, operate, and manage them. LIHI currently is “in the challenging phase of trying to (find) locations,” likely one in the city and one outside. Again, she said, the council authorized the money starting in 2020 but those to whom it had been allocated hadn’t spent it. She also noted that the new city budget has more money for the Unified Care Team and that it will shift to a more geographic focus rather than citywide (as previously reported, it’ll be split into regional teams).
Regarding street safety, she said the council wants to work next year to use the new legislative authority for speed-camera enforcement beyond school zones, and she promised to work in early 2023 “to designate this area as a drag zone” to enable speed cameras.
QUESTIONS/ANSWERS: This phase of the meeting began after almost an hour. First question, if SPD is ‘fully funded” as has been repeatedly reported, why doesn’t the SW Precinct have detectives, Anti-Crime Team officers, etc., any more? Herbold clarified that “fully funded means SPD has all the money it needs to hire everyone – so the problem is a hiring problem.” She contended that most police departments around the nation – and other lines of work, including 911 and SFD – have more vacancies than ever. “I don’t make the deployment decisions for the department” but from her conversations with chief Diaz re: specialty units, “he made the decision to reduce staffing in some specialty units so he can put as many people on patrol as possible.”
It was pointed out at that point that the wish list also demanded “remove illegally parked RVs, vans, trailers, trucks, and cars from city streets ASAP!” Rivera said, “That’s the mayor’s office’s (responsibility)” said Rivera. “We’re not tasked with that. … If there’s any criminality we are tasked with that.” Van Bronkhorst said, “Part of the issue has been getting Parking Enforcement Officers out there when we do removals.” He explained that removals have to be preceded by a lot of outreach, And that’s labor- and time-intensive. A series of complaints about RVs jutting out into the road ensued. “That’s a straight-up Parking Enforcement question,” declared Rivera. He urged patience.
They’ve been patient, Gain noted, saying some of these issues go back five years. “Sooner or later we gotta come up with solutions that are gonna work.” Enforcing parking laws would be a major step toward a solution, he said.
Another attendee said that Harbor Ave greenbelt encampments are “criminal enterprises” and not ‘homeless villages,” so why aren’t police addressing those? Van Bronkhorst said it’s hard to tell which residents of an encampment are engaged in crime and which are not. “We know that SPD does this kind of work [encampment raids] – they’ve reported busts on SPD Blotter,” interjected Herbold. In some cases, she added, encampment residents are being preyed on – they are victims. “It’s really important to realize that people living homeless are many times more likely to be victims of crime.” She also noted that SPD can’t talk about investigations that are in progress, so as not to “tip their hand.”
Back to street safety: What can be done to make crosswalks more safe? LaBorde said more signage is on the way for the new speed-hump areas. Flashing beacons might be possible eventually but there’s a supply issue..
Shortly after that, things got a bit contentious. It started when an attendee said he’s concerned the meeting will not result in action. He asked for a show of hands regarding who has problems with RV parking; just about everyone raised their hands.
What do they have to do to get an RPZ? Herbold said it’s not legislative – it’s something SDOT would have to do. “No excuses!” yelled another attendee. LaBonde said there’s a way to request one online, and he believes there’s already been a request. But, he warned, what’s being requested is not generally in SDOT’s wheelhouse – RPZs are usually to “ensure better access tp a business district, to ensure parking in the neighborhoods,” not to exclude certain types of vehicles. The attendee countered that this is an access issue because in his view the RVs are keeping people from coming to West Seattle to do business or visit. LaBorde said that RPZs would affect some residents too, adding that it takes a few months to implement – a study and outreach would be required.
“We have four times the traffic of Fauntleroy and they have an RPZ!” someone else called out.
Another attendee said that they believe police have more authority to remove vehicles than they use, that an oft-cited court ruling was related to the cost of getting it back. “All we have to do is enforce the Seattle Municipal Code. I guarantee you that every one of those vehicles qualifies as a junk vehicle under the Seattle Municipal Code. They’re illegal vehicles, parked illegally, and all we have to do is enforce the Seattle Municipal Code.”
Another attendee said she’d been attacked by someone from an RV that had no tags/plates and where she used to live in another state, that was qualification for immediate towing. That’s an issue for the PEOs and Unified Care Team, said Lt. Kim. Capt. Rivera also stressed a separation of enforcement .. if it’s a vehicle that’s abandoned with no plate, PEOs will handle. If someone’s living in it, that goes through the UCT, he said. LaBorde also emphasized the separation of responsibilities. “We are getting to those day-to-day complaints, it may take longer than it used to,”he said. Van Bronkhorst explained that when an RV is towed, there’s an inspection process to look “for specific health and safety issues, and if it doesn’t meet the criteria … it’s (scrapped).”
The attendee who was intent on the RPZ said “so you’re saying SDOT has not made a decision to go that route.” “Yes.” “But it’s something this group that lives on that street would desire … it gives the police another tool … (so) what is keeping you from making that decision?”
LaBorde replied, “It’s a fairly blunt instrument in that it’s going to impinge on not only (lawbreakers) but .. other people who may need on-street parking … who are doing completely appropriate behavior.” “But the residents want it,” insisted the attendee. LaBorde countered that in many parts of the area, parking already is restricted between 1 and 5 am, and there’s not parking enorcement available overnight anyhow.” The attendee said, “But you said there’s a study. … Do the study.”
Herbold pressed the point, “So if there’s an RPZ, but no overnight enforcement, what would that accomplish?”
Further back and forth had an attendee trying to drill down on “who owns the process?” “The mayor’s office,” said Rivera.
One person then tried to change the topic, saying she has an Alki business and was shocked not to have not heard gun violence brought up yet. Lt. Shopay then took the mike. “In the last month and a half we’e tried to put emphasis units on Alki and Harbor, starting in the middle of October, on an overtime basis, I saw some immediate results – quicker response to violent crimes – in November we ramped it up, hit the diagonal parking, Don Armeni, Alki hard, I had 25-30 officers volunteer for that … in that time there was a significant decrease in our 911 calls … this has been kind of an experiment … I’m looking for some feedback to see if this has made any difference – do I need to change where I’m putting my people?” He also explained that the patrols’ goal has been to “clear people out” rather than to make small-time arrests which would accomplish less by tying up officers on paperwork.
“Is this a staffing thing or budget thing,” asked an attendee. “Staffing,” replied Lt. Shopay.
Another attendee who lives across from “the diagonal parking” said it makes a “huge difference” that police are there. She continued, “Nobody wants draconian laws to be passed, nobody has a lack of compassion for homeless people, what we’re dealing with is public nuisance … it affects values, it affects tourism, it affects all the things we try to be good at … it’s incumbent upon all of us that public and private nuisance, which becomes common nuisance, be rectified.”
“It’s easy to just say we’re done and give up,” summarized Gain. as the meeting concluded, “but that’s not what we’re about, we have to solve these problems.”