Rohnert Park considers new camping rules to mitigate health and fire risks

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Rohnert Park is considering new regulations that would limit where homeless people can camp and prohibit certain items from being stored in camps on public property.

Violations would be treated as misdemeanors – punishable by jail time or heavy fines – rather than civil offences.

City Hall administrators hope the proposed changes and enhanced enforcement efforts will address issues of litter accumulation, accessibility for emergency responders and fire hazard mitigation at camps. homeless.

The city’s current camping ordinance prohibits camping citywide, but is unenforceable following a 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found it unconstitutional to ban campers. camps without providing shelter to homeless people.

About 250 homeless residents live in Rohnert Park, Sonoma County’s third largest city, but there is no permanent shelter.

The proposed update to the ordinance comes weeks after a 2-alarm fire on July 11 at a large, debris-filled campground in Oakland, which Rohnert Park administrators say illustrates the significant fire risk and need additional regulations. It is also being considered in the wake of two small fires last week in Santa Rosa that officials say started in homeless camps.

On July 25, the Santa Rosa Fire Department responded to a fire that burned a small city-owned parcel on Stony Point Road near Mesa Way. Three days later, firefighters extinguished a blaze that destroyed a tent at a camp on the site of the burnt-out Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel, which had been destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs fire.

On July 26, Rohnert Park City Council gave staff the go-ahead to change the city’s camping ordinance, but the proposed changes have left some residents wanting more action from the city.

“It looks good on paper, but it’s never going to happen,” longtime resident Raquel Guinn told elected officials at the meeting.

The Board will consider the new bylaws at its August 9 meeting and, if approved, the rules will go into effect September 8.

Similar regulations have been passed in other cities across the state, staff said.

Address health and safety

Rohnert Park currently prohibits overnight camping in parks and camping around wellheads, but the city wants to further limit where homeless people can set up their tents.

The proposed by-law would prohibit camping and storing personal effects on the street, sidewalk and rights-of-way if it interferes with pedestrian, bicycle or vehicular traffic or interferes with a construction site or any other activity for which the city issued a permit.

Camps cannot be within 10 feet of a driveway or loading dock, within 5 feet of a building entrance, or within 2 feet of a fire hydrant or another fire department connection, as part of the proposal.

Director of Developmental Services Mary Grace Pawson said the regulations are intended to protect public safety, reduce the risk of vehicle or bicycle collisions in camps and allow first responders easier access to buildings. and fire hydrants.

Pawson said the proposed rules don’t violate the court’s ruling because they don’t include a blanket ban on camping.

Staff had considered banning camping in certain areas of the city, but waited to make a recommendation until construction of a 60-unit housing complex for the city’s homeless residents was complete.

In addition to designating where camps can be set up, staff are proposing bylaws that would limit the size of camps and the items allowed in camps on city-owned property, such as the sanctioned homeless camp in the parking lot. suburban gated on Roberts Lake Road.

Pawson said city workers found several tents sheltered under large tarps, making it difficult for first responders to access the area in the event of a medical or fire emergency. They found propane tanks, gas canisters, piled wood and piled up tangled electrical cables, causing a fire hazard. Faeces and other biohazardous waste have also been reported.

The camp, which has about 100 tents since city officials first allowed homeless residents to settle there in February, is considered the largest in the county.

There have been four reported fires since March, Pawson said.

Pawson said additional regulations are needed to reduce hoarding of personal effects and trash, biohazard waste, and storage of flammable items.

The proposed rules include:

  • Limit campsites to 10 feet by 10 feet and require a 4 foot buffer between camps.
  • Prohibition to discharge gray water and black water.
  • Prohibit unauthorized electrical connections to reduce the risk of electric shock and fire.
  • Limit storage of gas and propane tanks.
  • Prohibit fires except for cooking in fireproof containers. Campfires, bonfires and trash fires would be prohibited.
  • Establishment of noise levels in the camps.

Violations would be considered misdemeanors punishable by arrest or fines, but police would have the discretion to designate violations as an offence, which carries a lesser sentence. Violations would also be considered a public nuisance, allowing code enforcement officers to address issues through an administrative process.

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