Sonoma County Board of Supervisors advances new camping regulations

The unanimous move marked a key step for county officials as they push to address widespread homelessness and grapple with clearing unsanctioned camps throughout the region.|

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously advanced a set of changes to its public camping ordinance that restrict where people can stay overnight on public property.

The discussion and endorsement marked a key step for county officials as they push to address widespread homelessness and grapple with clearing unsanctioned camps throughout the region.

“This ordinance has been a long time coming for us,” Tina Rivera, the county’s health services director, told the board Tuesday. “We see it as bringing things in alignment, as another tool in the toolbox.”

The policy is due back before the board on April 18 for a second, formal vote to adopt the revised regulations. It will be the first time the ordinance has been updated since 2014, said Matthew Lilligren, deputy county counsel, who worked on the policy.

Enforcement of the policy, once adopted, remains a key, lingering question that county officials have yet to answer.

Disputes over jurisdiction among local governments have fueled, in part, some of the cyclical problems with unsanctioned camps in the county, including on the Joe Rodota Trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. It remains closed for cleanup of the latest large camp there.

Rivera said discussions about enforcement of the new rules have begun.

“This is a big scope, this is a big step for the county,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “And I want to talk about our ability to implement.”

Enforcement would involve multiple agencies, including Health Services, the Sheriff’s Office and Regional Parks, depending on the type of public property, and jurisdiction, Lilligren said.

“We want to be very thoughtful about how we lay this out,” Rivera said.

The new ordinance applies to all county property and to areas within the county’s jurisdiction outside local cities. It will ban camping on public property from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“That is specifically something that is meant to acknowledge people have a fundamental right to sleep if they don’t have shelter otherwise available to them,” said Lilligren.

The regulations also move the area where overnight stays are prohibited to within 25 feet of a public building’s entrance or exit and 50 feet from a residence and within 25 feet of a shelter, safe parking or service hub for homeless people.

Other provisions include bans on camping in public buildings; within any county park where camping is prohibited; within a high-fire severity zone; within 100 feet of a day care facility, playground or school; on any public highway; and near waterways.

The revisions are intended to bring the county’s camping ordinance into compliance with Martin v. City of Boise, a 2019 appellate court ruling that protected people’s right to sleep on public property when shelter space is not available.

Homeless advocates, however, have repeatedly criticized the county’s policy, arguing that it does not clearly show where people can camp and that it fails to consider what unsheltered individuals are supposed to do with their belongings during the day.

A few people renewed those concerns Tuesday.

“My first thought is you’re creating more policing to try and keep this under control,” said a public speaker who introduced herself as Jasmine.

Justin Milligan, a homelessness prevention attorney for Sonoma County Legal Aid, asked the county to clarify where people can camp throughout the region and called for more coordination.

“We need to have a clear understanding of who’s to enforce what,” Milligan said.

Supervisors David Rabbitt and Chris Coursey, the board chair, pushed back against criticism that the new regulations were “punitive.”

“The intent of this is not to push people out,” said Coursey. “It’s to call people in, to call people in to services, to call people into shelter. We need more housing period.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or On Twitter @MurphReports.

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