Homeless encampments in Thurston County may be permitted with greater flexibility under a newly approved permanent law change.
The Board of County Commissioners voted 2-1 to approve the change last week. The ordinance allows for some permitting criteria for homeless encampments to be waived during a declared emergency.
The county adopted an interim emergency housing ordinance in June 2019. Since then, the board has repeatedly renewed the ordinance, even though it has never been used to permit an encampment. It was most recently renewed May 24.
Associate Planner Leah Davis said the permanent ordinance follows the interim regulations with a few minor changes. Like the interim rules, the new rules apply only to rural Thurston County and urban growth areas of Lacey, Tumwater and Olympia.
Emergency homeless encampments have been allowed as a temporary use in those areas since 2010. Interim regulations have been in place since 2019 to make permitting such encampments easier. The new ordinance does not outright establish homeless encampments.
The county accepted public comments on the permanent ordinance through Nov. 8. Davis said the county received just 11 comments, with two in favor and nine against.
Commissioners Carolina Mejia and Tye Menser voted in favor of the ordinance while Commissioner Gary Edwards voted against it.
Edwards said he opposed the ordinance because he disagrees with the county's approach to the homelessness crisis.
"The problem is most of the individuals that we're spending the most money on are not from here," Edwards said. "They've come here because we are a welcoming community. I just don't feel there's enough room in the lifeboat."
But data doesn't support Edwards' contention. Thurston County surveyed 766 people experiencing homelessness during a point in time census on Feb. 24, The Olympian previously reported, and a plurality of respondents said they lived in Olympia, although there are gaps in the data.
Menser also pushed back against Edwards argument, saying it does not apply in this case. He said the county considered using the interim ordinance only once in 2021 when RVs were blocking access to Providence St. Peter Hospital on Ensign Road in Olympia.
"If we had a residency requirement that we could only allow a temporary encampment for people that originated from here, we might not have been able to clear the emergency room and actually use the tool to protect the health and safety of our residents," Menser said.
Though the county never used the ordinance, Menser said it would be beneficial to have this tool available in the event of a specific emergency.
Mejia thanked county staff for preparing the ordinance. She said a permanent change should help reduce staff workload.
"The way I see it, we've been reviewing it every six months," Mejia said. "Every time that it's renewed, it does take time from our staff, it takes time from our planning commission. This will make it a possibility for staff to start working on another project."
The permanent changes make "some minor adjustments" that change the length of time for which waivers are valid, according to the county.
The ordinance also does not allow the county to waive criteria prohibiting encampments in critical areas. It also clarifies the application and permitting process.
On Tuesday, Davis said the new rules require a public information meeting to be held. It also caps the number of residents at 80 people.
Additionally, the new rules allow host agencies to prohibit alcohol at their discretion. The county also added a recommendation for the safe storage of weapons.
Requirements may be waived only by the director of Community Planning and Economic Development, a position currently held by Joshua Cummings, during a declared public health emergency.
Just as with the interim rules, the director can waive many land use code standards. These include requirements for size, parking standards, distance from a bus stop, right-of-way limitations and visual separation from other uses.
Other criteria that may be waived include standards for keeping a log of residents, requiring verifiable identification, having a security tent, allowing visitors, maintaining a numbering system and requiring liability insurance.
There are some exceptions to the codes the director may waive. He cannot waive requirements for sanitary portable toilets, standards requiring structures to conform to building codes, fire safety requirements, requirements for a code of conduct and agreement, and requirements for the sponsor to self-police and self-manage.
Lastly, the director cannot waive the prohibition of illegal drugs, fighting, abuse, littering or disruption of neighbors.