Homeless encampments in rural Thurston County will continue to be allowed with waivers of some code requirements for six more months, even though no camps are currently permitted.
The county Board of Commissioners extended and amended an emergency housing ordinance during a Tuesday public hearing with a 2-1 vote for the second time since June 2019 when the county declared homelessness a county-wide public health crisis.
In addition to rural areas, the ordinance applies to the urban growth areas of Lacey, Tumwater and Olympia — effectively all areas under county jurisdiction.
Commissioners Tye Menser and John Hutchings voted in favor of the extension with an amendment that would allow waivers for cooking and heating systems for recreation vehicles. This amendment will loosen restrictions further to address the homelessness crisis, said associate planner Leah Davis.
"The ordinance reads that there are no heating or cooking units allowed in individual camping units but when we took a look at the RV possibility, it didn't make sense that they couldn't use their heating and cooking appliances in the RV," Davis said.
The ordinance does not establish homeless encampments, Davis said, rather it gives the Community Planning and Economic Development director the ability to waive certain code requirements for encampments if and when needed.
Davis said there have been no such encampments approved to date.
Under the ordinance, the director can waive certain land use code standards including requirements for size, maximum number of residents, parking standards, distance from a bus stop, right-of-way limitations and visual separation from other uses.
Additionally, the director can also waive standards for keeping a log of residents, requiring verifiable identification, having a security tent, allowing visitors, maintaining a numbering system and requiring liability insurance.
However, the ordinance does not allow the director to waive the requirement for sanitary portable toilets, standards requiring structures to conform to building codes, fire safety requirements, requirements for a code of conduct and agreement, and requirements for the sponsor to self-police and self-manage.
Lastly, the director cannot waive the prohibition of alcohol, drugs, fighting, abuse, littering or disruption of neighbors.
Commissioner Gary Edwards voted against the extension and amendment, saying he doesn't believe the county should enable homeless encampments further. He said he has opposed this ordinance since its inception and would prefer those experiencing homelessness be forced into mental health and addiction treatment.
"We need to have a hammer over these folks," Edwards said. "I feel that because we've allowed this deviant behavior that we've ruined the beautiful community of Olympia. That makes me sick."
Edwards said he thinks the crisis has been caused by mismanagement in the city of Olympia and he does not want homeless encampments to spill over into rural areas. He said he doesn't think it is compassionate to allow such encampments.
Menser said this ordinance is not a solution to the crisis but he thinks it's a worthwhile tool for the county to have. He added he does not think it's fair to blame the city of Olympia for the homelessness crisis.
"To say that Olympia has created something that is confronting every community is just, I think, pretty ridiculous, so I disagree with that respectfully and I think we need to put every tool in the toolbox to address this," Menser said.
Hutchings said he approved of the ordinance and its amendment because he thinks it loosens restrictions in a kind and useful way.
"It's not being utilized but we found a way, should it ever need to be utilized, to be compassionate and allow people to cook, so they can eat and heat their home and/or their kids, whomever. So, that is compassionate."
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