Rohnert Park to consider stricter limits on where homeless camps can be set up
Rohnert Park is seeking to beef up its rules on homeless camping, another response to a persistent concern among residents that has worsened over the past two years.
Proposed regulations would bar people from camping in areas city administrators described as particularly sensitive, such as creeks, near schools and near existing shelters.
Officials hope the proposed changes address potential damage to environmental resources and safety concerns.
“These are responsible steps to take to protect the community and protect those who are in the camps,” Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said.
Homelessness has become a hot button issue in Rohnert Park, with the council facing increased pressure from residents and businesses to take more forceful action to reduce the number of people camping across parts of the city.
In particular, a city-sanctioned camp on Roberts Lake Road that has grown to about 100 tents, believed to be the largest in the county, has become a focal point of residents who say the city isn’t doing enough.
The City Council will consider the new restrictions during its Tuesday meeting that begins at 5 p.m.
Council members have defended their work on homelessness as they balance limits on their power from court rulings and pandemic guidelines and efforts to address residents’ concerns. The issue could have implications on the November election where residents will elect three new council members.
Santa Rosa and Petaluma have faced similar issues as they’ve struggled with how to create safer sites for unhoused residents to camp while outlawing other places.
Rohnert Park’s new rules are the third proposed change to the city’s camping ordinance.
The city previously banned camping around wellheads to protect drinking water, and in August prohibited camping on public streets, sidewalks and bike paths and also limited the size of camps and permitted items in camps on public property to address trash buildup, accessibility for emergency responders and mitigate fire risks at encampments.
An estimated 250 unsheltered residents live in Rohnert Park, the third largest city in Sonoma County, where the total homeless population was nearly 2,900, according to the point-in-time count in February. About 120 people are believed to be staying at the Roberts Lake Road park-and-ride and in two small encampments in Hinebaugh Creek, according to the city.
In a report to the City Council, Development Services Director Mary Grace Pawson wrote that with construction nearly complete on Labath Landing, a 60-unit housing facility for the city’s unhoused residents, and other interim and permanent housing units planned or under construction across the county, the city should further limit outdoor camping locations and better regulate existing encampments as it works to move people to new available spaces.
The new regulations would prohibit camping in three locations:
- Within a creek protection zone, a 20-to-50-foot buffer surrounding the city’s waterways, including Copeland and Hinebaugh creeks.
- Within 1,500 feet of a school, day care or library.
- Within 1,000 feet of a designated facility that provides shelter, safe parking or serves as a homeless services navigation center if opened after Nov. 13, 2018, when the city declared a shelter crisis.
Camping outside of designated camping areas “creates health and safety risks, not only for persons engaged in the camping but also for all persons encountering the sometimes unsanitary and disorderly environment in burgeoning, makeshift camps,” Pawson wrote in her report.
The new measure aims to keep public spaces clean and safe, she said.
The city hopes the regulations help reduce trash and biological waste that can pollute the creeks and reduces the risk of people being swept away or killed during flooding from intense storms.
Banning camps nears school and libraries will help create safer spaces for children with less risk of violence or exposure to use or sale of illegal substances, according to the report.
The city hopes limiting camps near existing shelter and service centers will “encourage the success of public programs that provide services to the unhoused” and reduce exposure of those seeking housing and other assistance to crime and drugs, according to the report.
In addition to limiting where tents can be set up, the ordinance allows the city to more easily restrict camping in public spaces in the future and allows the city manager to establish regulations, such as site management plans, for camps on city-owned land.
Housing staff previously considered banning camping in certain areas of the city but held off on making a recommendation until construction of Labath Landing was complete.