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

The rules, which would go into effect in September, would limit where camps can be set up and prohibit storage of certain items in camps on public property.|

Rohnert Park is considering new regulations that would limit where unhoused 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 hefty fines — rather than civil infractions.

City Hall administrators hope the proposed changes and beefed up enforcement efforts will address the issues of trash buildup, accessibility for emergency responders and mitigate fire risks at homeless camps.

The city’s current camping ordinance prohibits camping throughout the city, but is unenforceable as a result of a 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found it was unconstitutional to ban camps without providing shelter to people experiencing homelessness.

An estimated 250 unsheltered residents live in Rohnert Park, Sonoma County’s third largest city, but it has no permanent shelter.

The proposed update to the ordinance comes weeks after a July 11 2-alarm fire in a large encampment full of debris in Oakland, which Rohnert Park administrators said illustrates the significant fire risk and need for added regulations. It also is being considered in the wake of last week’s two small fires in Santa Rosa that officials believe started at 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 doused a fire that destroyed a tent at a camp at the site of the burned Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel, which had been destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs Fire.

Rohnert Park City Council on July 26 gave staff the green light to amend the city’s camping ordinance, but the proposed changes left some residents wanting more action from the city.

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

Council will consider the new regulations during its Aug. 9 meeting and, if approved, the rules will go into effect Sept. 8.

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

Addressing health and safety

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

The proposed regulations would prohibit camping and storing belongings on the street, sidewalk and rights of way if it impedes pedestrian, bicycle or vehicle traffic or interferes with a construction site or other activity for which the city has issued a permit.

Camps can’t 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 other fire department connection, under the proposal.

Development Services Director Mary Grace Pawson said the regulations are intended to protect public safety, reduce the risks of vehicles or bicycles crashing into 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 provide a blanket ban on camping.

Staff had considered banning camping in certain areas of the city but held off on making a recommendation until construction of a 60-unit housing facility for the city’s unhoused residents is completed.

In addition to designating where camps can be set up, staff is proposing regulations that would limit the size of the camps and permitted items at camps on city-owned properties like the sanctioned homeless camp in the fenced-off commuter parking lot on Roberts Lake Road.

Pawson said city workers have found multiple tents housed under large tarps, making it difficult for first responders to access the area in case of a medical emergency or fire. They’ve found propane tanks, gas canisters, stacked wood and tangled electrical cables piled together causing a fire hazard. Feces and other biohazard waste also have been reported.

The camp, which has grown to about 100 tents since city officials first allowed unhoused 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 tamp down on the accumulation of belongings and trash, biohazard waste and the storage of flammable objects.

Proposed rules include:

  • Limiting camp sites to 10 feet by 10 feet and requiring a 4-foot buffer between camps.
  • Prohibiting dumping of gray water and black water.
  • Prohibiting unpermitted electrical connections to reduce risk of electrocution and fires.
  • Limiting storage of gas and propane tanks.
  • Prohibiting fires except for cooking in fireproof bins. Campfires, bonfires and garbage fires would be outlawed.
  • Establishing noise levels at camps.

Violations would be considered misdemeanors punishable by arrest or fines but police would have discretion to designate violations as an infraction, which carries a lesser penalty. Violations also would be considered a public nuisance, which would allow code enforcement officers to abate issues through an administrative process.

Pawson said violations are now considered infractions punishable by citations and fines but that hasn’t been an effective enforcement strategy. Increasing the punishment could make enforcement more effective, she said.

Residents want more action

Residents who addressed the council during public comment said they were fed up with trash strewn in the street, walking paths and in the creeks.

They considered the proposed regulations lip service and said more rules likely wouldn’t make a difference.

Guinn, who has lived in Rohnert Park for 50 years, said she wants to be able to raise her grandchildren in a safe community. Though she has compassion for people experiencing homelessness, she said, the city should pay more attention to the needs of taxpaying residents.

“We hired or voted for you all to have compassion and respect for our wants and needs as well,” she said. “All I hear is what we need to do for these people to make them feel safe, to keep them fed, housed.”

Guinn and others called on the council to ban encampments and said they were tired of hearing from elected officials that their hands are tied.

“I know you feel your hands are tied because of all these restrictions … but that’s why we voted for you people to do something about it and not sit here and enable these people to stay there,” she said.

Council members and staff pushed back on the criticism and said they were doing what they could under the law. They also voiced frustration with the situation and lack of tools to address homelessness because of court rulings, pandemic guidelines and statewide law changes that have made it more difficult to prosecute certain property and drug crimes.

“I would like nothing better than to get a bus and load it up with people who are making these kind of messes in town and drive them out somewhere where they can do that and not bother the taxpaying citizens of a community who’ve all agreed to live by a certain social construct as we have in our town,” Council member Susan Hollingsworth-Adams said.

Officials have made strides to reduce the number of encampments across the city and staff has been working to clean up the camps and reduce vandalism and other crime, she said. Since 2019, the city has committed more than $4 million to homeless services provides, cleared more than 80 encampments and found permanent or temporary shelter for more than 120 people, according to the city.

“To say the city is doing nothing is a slap in the face to every employee who is doing more than their fair share,” Hollingsworth-Adams said.

Council member Gerard Giudice said he’s had his business broken into and understood residents’ concerns. Housing with supportive services is the only way to tackle homelessness and the city is working on building more units, he said.

He said additional funding from the state and measures at the state level to address homelessness are needed to make a difference and the city will take available steps to address health and safety issues in the meantime.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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