Rohnert Park is considering new regulations that would limit where homeless people can camp and prohibit certain items from being stored on publicly owned campgrounds.
Violations will be treated as felonies – punishable by jail time or hefty fines – rather than civil offences.
City hall administrators hope the proposed changes and increased enforcement efforts will address problems with trash accumulation, accessibility for emergency services and reduce fire risks at the homeless encampments.
The city’s current camping ordinance prohibits camping citywide, but is unenforceable as a result of a 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found it unconstitutional to ban campsites without providing shelter to people. who experience homelessness.
An estimated 250 unsheltered residents live in Rohnert Park, Sonoma County’s third-largest city, but there is no permanent shelter.
The proposed ordinance update comes weeks after a July 11 2-alarm fire at a large debris-filled campground in Oakland that Rohnert Park administrators say illustrates the significant fire risk and the need for additional regulations. It’s also being considered after two small fires last week in Santa Rosa that officials say started in homeless encampments.
On July 25, the Santa Rosa Fire Department responded to a fire that burned a small city lot on Stony Point Road near Mesa Way. Three days later, firefighters extinguished a fire that destroyed a tent at a campground at the site of the burned Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel that was destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs fire.
The Rohnert Park City Council on July 26 gave officials the go-ahead to amend the city’s camping ordinance, but the proposed changes have some residents calling for more action from the city.
“It looks great on paper, but it’s never going to happen,” longtime resident Raquel Gwin told elected officials during the meeting.
The council will consider the new regulations at its meeting on August 9 and, if approved, the rules will go into effect on September 8.
Similar ordinances have been passed in other cities across the state, staff said.
Addressing health and safety
Rohnert Park currently prohibits overnight camping in parks and camping around water wells, but the city wants to further limit where people who have become homeless can set up their tents.
The proposed regulations would prohibit camping and the storage of items on the street, sidewalk and rights-of-way if it impedes pedestrian, bicycle or vehicular movement or interferes with a construction site or other activity for which the city has issued a permit.
Camps cannot be less than 10 feet from a driveway or loading dock, 5 feet from a building entrance or 2 feet from a fire hydrant or other fire department connection, according to the proposal.
Department of Development Director Mary Grace Pawson said the regulations are intended to protect public safety, reduce the risks of vehicles or bicycles crashing into campgrounds and allow first responders easier access to buildings and fire hydrants .
Pawson said the proposed rules do not violate the court’s ruling because they do not include a blanket ban on camping.
Staff has considered banning camping in certain areas of the city, but has delayed making a recommendation until construction is completed on a 60-unit housing facility for the city’s displaced residents.
In addition to specifying where encampments can be established, staff is proposing regulations that would limit the size of encampments and items allowed in encampments on city-owned property, such as the sanctioned homeless encampment in the gated commuter parking lot at Roberts Lake Road.
Pawson said city workers found numerous tents set up under large tarps, making it difficult for first responders to access the area in the event of a medical emergency or fire. They found propane tanks, gas cylinders, stacked wood and tangled electrical cables piled together, causing a fire hazard. Feces and other biohazardous waste have also been reported.
The encampment, which has grown to about 100 tents since city officials first allowed homeless residents to set up camp there in February, is believed to be the largest in the county.
There have been four reported fires since March, Pawson said.
Pawson said additional regulations are needed to limit the accumulation of belongings and trash, biohazardous waste and the storage of flammable items.
The proposed rules include:
- Limit camping sites to 10 feet by 10 feet and require a 4-foot buffer between camps.
- Ban on discharge of gray water and black water.
- Prohibition of unauthorized electrical connections to reduce the risk of electric shock and fire.
- Limited storage of gas and propane tanks.
- No fire, except for cooking in fireproof containers. Campfires, bonfires and trash fires will be prohibited.
- Establishing noise levels in camps.
Violations will be considered offenses punishable by arrest or fines, but the police will have the power to designate the violations as an offense that carries a lesser penalty. Violations will also be considered a public nuisance, allowing code enforcement officers to reduce problems through an administrative process.