Possible code changes to affect RV dwellers

The city’s planning commission is looking to change codes regarding RVs and large vehicles

After making code changes to get oversized vehicles away from parking on public right-of-ways, the city of Renton is making some rules on residential property. But concerns raised at the Renton Planning Commission on an item in the changes have caused staff to bring the issue to the full city council.

The code changes refer to the number of large vehicles allowed at residential properties and would ban others. The code changes would also enforce the amount of time a person was allowed to live in a recreational vehicle (RV) in one spot.

The code changes were met with lengthy deliberation at the Sept. 18 Renton Planning Commission meeting. City staff told councilmembers at the Planning and Development Committee that due to the level of discussion, the Mayor’s Office has asked that the whole council be presented with the code changes at a committee of the whole meeting in the coming weeks.

Changes in rules for oversized vehicles on residential and public property was requested by code compliance, who according to staff get a number of requests related to these vehicles but are unable to do anything, due to the lack of code around the issue. The codes are meant to protect property values and preserve neighborhood quality by reducing visual blight, according to staff’s presentation on the issue.

With the code changes presented by staff, the city would allow one commercial vehicle exceeding 10,000 pounds per dwelling unit, but ban semi-trucks, semi-cabs and tractor-trailers. After the one commercial vehicle, other vehicles will require a temporary use permit, valid up to five years.

The code would also regulate where RVs could be parked on residential property.

One Renton resident told planning commissioners his concerns about the code changes. He described the situation he was in and the amount of work it would take to move that residential vehicle from one spot in his yard to another. After his comment, staff updated the ordinance so that the rules on where the RVs can be on a residential yard won’t go into effect for one year. Every other part of the ordinance would go into effect once approved by the council.

Staff updated the ordinance so that the rules on where the RVs can be on a residential yard won’t go into effect for one year. Every other part of the ordinance would go into effect once approved by the council.

Living in RVs

One of the staff recommendations could change the length of time a person could live in an RV on private residential property. Staff recommended it be capped at seven days without a permit, and after that requires a $100 temporary use permit for 30 days. Staff recommended the permit be renewed only four times a year.

This caused a stir with one Renton Planning Commissioner, David Fleetwood, which sparked the discussion amongst the commissioners about the larger picture of folks living in vehicles. Some like Fleetwood agreed it is a last resort for those on the brink of living on the streets.

“I get it, people who are without housing are inconvenient to see, but I don’t think anything gets done if you just make them invisible,” Fleetwood said.

Commissioners who also expressed concerns about this item at the meeting mentioned they should look at more options for affordable housing in the future unrelated to folks living in vehicles. Fleetwood said folks living in vehicles are not a long-term living solution, but it’s a fact of life.

Residents are living in vehicles in and around the region, according to data collected in the latest Count Us In, a count of people experiencing homelessness in King County. The southwest region, which included Renton and 12 other cities, is estimated to have 303 people living in cars, 115 in RVs and 82 in vans. It’s important to note the survey report acknowledged it was hard to identify who’s living in a vehicle, and that this was a minimum estimate.

“If the RV is operable, outside of view on the street, on the property of a friend, what is the problem?” Fleetwood said. “How is it impacting you? Why do you care if somebody’s in it?”

Staff responded at the planning commission meeting there are health concerns with sewage and water use from the people living in RVs.

Commissioners voted, accept for Fleetwood who abstained, to agree with staff’s recommendations on all the items, with an alteration to the recommendation on living in RVs.

In that commission’s alternative recommendation, planning commission asked the permit renewal be upped to five months instead of four, and that the $100 fee could be waived in dire circumstances, at the discretion of the city administrator.

Right now city code doesn’t allow for living in RVs on any public or private property in Renton proper, according to city staff at the Sept. 18 planning commission meeting, so some commissioners saw this measure as an improvement. Fleetwood said he abstained from the vote, instead of voting against, because he said this is a marginal improvement, but he believes malicious property owners might use this code to target folks living in vehicles, and it makes it hard to make changes in the future.

“When you have an opportunity to do something like this you want to get it done right, and I feel like this whole issue has been rushed through,” Fleetwood said.

Fleetwood said he would be willing to concede that vehicles on residential properties might not even be a big issue if he heard from advocacy groups or the affected people. He said he had a hard time getting anyone from these groups to make it to the 6 p.m. planning commission meeting, and that he believes it’s city staff’s responsibility to bring them those experts.

Advocate for homeless living in vehicles and president of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness Bill Kirlin-Hackett said this is not a blanket ban, so it’s unclear how folks who are living in vehicles in other areas, for example the industrial zones, are treated by the city. He said it’s more likely property owners who want control over their yard will complain about this over homeless advocacy groups, as it’s likely relatives or friends that are living in RVs on their yards.

Kirlin-Hackett said RVs are a major form of shelter on the West Coast, and vehicle residency is increasing. Cities are struggling about where people in vehicles can go to be safe and sheltered when there’s a shortage of that type of housing.

“If you’re dealing with oversized parking that’s one thing, other cities have those rules and you certainly don’t want them in residential areas. But when you run out of options, where do people in occupied vehicles go?” Kirlin-Hackett said.

Fleetwood has been on the planning commission eight years and said this was one of the worst decisions he’s seen from the commission in a while. He likes the Planning Department of the city of Renton and his fellow commissioners and said that was part of what surprised him about the issue. Fleetwood said in the last couple of years, the commission has become less inclusive, lacking people of color, renters and people with experience in the development, environmental requirements or planning. Fleetwood said he is troubled by the lack of different voices on the commission and said that he has offered to step down if another person with a diverse voice is available to join.

“If we’re supposed to represent the community, this is not representation,” Fleetwood said.

Fleetwood said he hopes council won’t let the issue of people living in RVs on a residential property get through just because nobody notices it, and that he’s willing to concede that the seven day allowance is good if voices who would be affected by this decision are in agreement with that. He also hopes more will be done to make the planning commission a closer reflection of Renton.

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