Camping on public property has been banned within Chehalis city limits after the Chehalis City Council unanimously approved an ordinance amending the city’s municipal code during its regular meeting Monday night.
The ordinance was put together by various city officials including Counselor Kevin Carns and City Attorney Kevin Nelson and passed by the council on its first and final reading following an amendment.
While the ordinance was up for its first reading Monday, a second reading was scheduled for later this month. Upon a motion by Carns, it was decided to pass the ordinance on its first and only reading and have it go into effect as soon as possible.
City code allows the council to forgo an ordinance’s normally required second reading and approve it on its first and final reading if passing the ordinance is urgent to public safety.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time and I think we should just get it done,” Chehalis Mayor Tony Ketchum said.
Staff worked over the past several months to ensure the camping ban would be in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling upholding Martin v. Boise and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upholding the Johnson v. Grants Pass decision last year.
The rulings declared bans on camping unconstitutional unless municipalities ensured people experiencing homelessness had adequate access to overnight shelters before enforcing the bans.
“Kevin Nelson deserves a lot of credit for getting the council a legally defendable ordinance in a short amount of time,” Carns told The Chronicle.
Aside from Carns and Nelson, other staff involved in the creation of the ordinance included the police chief and deputy police chief, Parks and Recreation and Planning and Building department staff and a member of the Chehalis City Council Beautification Committee.
“The idea behind this is to limit camping, sleeping and storing personal property on public property, with a great deal of exceptions. Those exceptions essentially relate to periods of time when there is no alternative shelter available,” Nelson said at the meeting. “The federal government has determined it is important that the city not prevent people from doing things that every human needs to do and they’re doing it on public property simply because they do not have any alternatives.”
In a press release sent to The Chronicle, Councilor Daryl Lund praised the ordinance for balancing public safety and the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
“The passing of this new ordinance is a significant step towards addressing the escalating issues related to the unhoused population and their impact on the community,” Lund said in the release. “Officials are confident that this new ordinance will help keep the city safe while also ensuring that the basic rights of those who need assistance are respected.”
Lund added that the ordinance closely mirrors other municipalities in Washington state.
Carns believes the ordinance is a step in the right direction as communities around Lewis County deal with the rise of people experiencing homelessness. He indicated it was the first step of many more to come.
“Ultimately, (we need to) make sure that the chronically homeless are getting the services that taxpayers are currently spending a lot on,” Carns said.
Other city code amendments could also be in the works, Carns said. He told The Chronicle he wants to help Chehalis better deal with derelict and abandoned vehicles, abandoned or stolen shopping carts and cleaning trash from existing homeless encampments.
“City staff is spending a lot of time picking up shopping carts and trash,” Carns said.
While also banning camping, sleeping and storing personal property, the ordinance also established guidelines dictating what law enforcement does with personal property they find on public property.
Upon removal from public property, a person’s private property will be safely stored by the Chehalis Police Department for a minimum of 60 days. If stored personal property is not claimed after 60 days, law enforcement is authorized to dispose of it.
Additionally, law enforcement is not required to store personal property if it is hazardous or evidently valueless. That includes garbage, needles, drug contraband or “items plainly dangerous or constituting refuse.”
Chehalis Police Chief Randy Kaut is responsible for creating the administrative policy to carry out the provisions, according to the amended city code.
As for the shelter itself, Lewis County officials are still taking proposals for a night-by-night shelter that will be located near Yard Birds on Northeast Kresky Avenue in Chehalis. In previous reporting by The Chronicle, county officials hoped to have the shelter open this year.
County officials worked alongside city officials during the ordinance’s drafting phase. Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock was in attendance during Monday night’s meeting.
Last year, Lewis County commissioners voted to approve an ordinance prohibiting unauthorized camping on county land and adopted a resolution for homeless encampment removals and site cleanups.