Council deliberations on overnight camping ordinance continued to Thursday

Councilmember Will Chen proposes an amendment during Tuesday night’s council meeting.

More discussion but no decision — and a special meeting scheduled for Thursday. That was the outcome of the Edmonds City Council ‘s Tuesday deliberations regarding an overnight camping ordinance that would make it illegal to occupy public property when shelter is available and refused.

The ordinance, first introduced to the council last week, was drafted by the city attorney in collaboration with Deputy Parks Director Shannon Burley, who oversees the city’s human services program, and Police Chief Michelle Bennett and her staff. It allows police to cite individuals for illegally occupying public property in what city staff say are very rare situations where two conditions are met: 1) When available overnight shelter exists and 2) when that available shelter has been offered and refused.

Creation of the ordinance was sparked by an incident in the Lake Ballinger neighborhood last summer, when a woman spent several months living on a bench at the Interurban Trail. While it was originally created to address those instances involving people who are homeless, the latest version includes updated language — requested by Councilmember Will Chen — that it apply to anyone who is illegally occupying public property.

The measure drew public comments from several speakers — including 21st District Rep. Strom Peterson and former 32nd District Sen. Maralyn Chase — stating they were opposed to it. Edmonds resident Kate Sullivan told the council that the ordinance will not fix the issue of homelessness, but instead “it intimidates, it terrorizes, it says you are not wanted here, we don’t care about you, get out of my sight.”

Also speaking in opposition was Lisa Utter, chair of South Snohomish County’s Emergency Cold Weather, which provides shelter for homeless people when temperatures drop below freezing. “I think criminalizing people for existing, just for sleeping is really the opposite of being an inclusive and neighbor and city that you claim and it is really being a bad neighbor to push people out into other welcoming cities,” Utter said.

City Council member Laura Johnson expressed similar sentiments, adding that it takes months of relationship building and understanding to find appropriate services for those who are homeless. While the proposed ordinance states it won’t be enforced unless the person refuses available shelter, “it doesn’t state that the service must meet the individual’s needs,” Johnson said. She stressed that the city should work to expand available shelter options in Edmonds before further considering such an ordinance and moved to table it, but that motion failed on a 2-5 vote (Councilmember Paine also voting in favor.)

Paine then asked Police Chief Michelle Bennett to weigh in how the department would enforce such an ordinance. The chief replied that the process would be similar to how police officers now handle similar calls involving those who are homeless: They would call a representative from the city’s human services department, who would assess the person’s need for services and try to assist them. If the person declines shelter, the person has the option to leave. “Any kind of charging or arrest would be an absolutely last resort,” she added.

“It’s all about first finding services to help,” Bennett said, noting that many of her officers advocate for those who are homeless and work to get them the services they need.

Patricia Taraday of the Lighthouse Law Group, which contracts with Edmonds to provide city attorney services, reiterated her comments from last week that the criminal ordinance is not about homelessness. “The ordinance will not be enforced against homeless individuals when no available shelter is in place for that particular person,” Taraday said. “Homeless individuals will not be arrested for sleeping outside when there is no available shelter.”

While violating the ordinance would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail, it includes a provision that the court can order anyone unable to pay to instead perform “community service or work crew in lieu of a monetary penalty .”

Council member Chen proposed a new amendment to the ordinance requiring that the city offer — in addition to shelter — food, medical care and notification of family. Council President Vivian Olson asked staff to weigh in on the feasibility of putting those requirements into practice. Deputy Director Burley noted that needed medical care would be provided by paramedics. Notifying the family, she said, is “an incredibly compassionate suggestion” that staff could try to do but couldn’t guarantee it would be successful.

Olson said that she thought those two suggestions — medical care and family notification — could be part of the ordinance’s implementation plan rather than in the ordinance itself, and proposed an amendment to Chen’s amendment that deleted those two items. That amendment passed on a 4-3 vote, with Chen, Laura Johnson and Paine voting no. The amended amendment then passed 5-2, with L. Johnson and Paine opposing.

More discussion then ensued before a final vote on the ordinance could be taken. At 10:45 pm, a motion to extend the meeting further (it had already been extended three times, for 15-minute increments) failed. Olson quickly moved that the meeting be continued to a special meeting this Thursday.

In other action, the council:

– Received a Buildable Lands Report and Initial 2044 Growth Targets presentation from Steven Toy, principal demographer with Snohomish County. The presentation sets the stage for the city’s 2024 update of its Comprehensive Plan, which will begin this year. The Buildable Lands Report is used by cities and counties for zoning analysis and helps them with planning. It also looks at densities of various zoning areas and the land capacity for future growth. In Edmonds, for example, the Highway 99 and the Edmonds Way/Westgate areas have been identified for future residential capacity, Toy said.

Washington state’s Growth Management Act requires fast-growing cities and counties to develop a comprehensive plan to manage their population growth. Based on current growth targets, Edmonds’ population is projected to grow to 56,000 people by 2044 — 13,000 more residents than the city currently has.

Development Director Susan McLaughlin, lower right, told the council Tuesday night the city will revisit Housing Commission Recommendations as part of the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update,

Development Director Susan McLaughlin reminded the council that the city will be discussing, as part of the Comprehensive Plan update, a variety of options the city has for meeting growth targets — including recommendations made by the Edmonds’ Housing Commission dwell such as allowing detached accessoryings units and cluster/cottage housing.

The timeline for the Comprehensive Plan update starting this year includes a visioning and scoping process, development of an Environmental Impact Statement and public hearings.

– Awarded the construction contract for the Highway 99 Gateway-Revitalization Stage 2 Project to Westwater Construction Company, which came in with the low bid of $6,632,644, with a $663,300 management reserve. The bid was 25% above the engineer’s estimate, due to the challenging bid climate in the Seattle area. There’s a backlog of projects due to the recent concrete strike and difficulties in hiring skilled labor, and material prices are also higher.

The scope of Highway 99 improvements include installing a raised landscaped median with mid-block left-turn pockets — replacing the center left-turn lane — plus adding gateway signs at the north and south ends of the city limits. There will also be a pedestrian-activated HAWK signal 600 feet north of 234th Street Southwest — similar to the one now installed on Highway 104 near City Park — aimed at making highway pedestrian crossings safer.

The construction timeline is approximately six months and it’s expected the bulk of the work will be completed by the end of the year. The HAWK signal isn’t likely to be installed until spring 2023 due to supply chain issues, Acting Public Works Director Rob English said.

– Held a public hearing but took no action on amendments to city code regarding residential occupancy, which are aimed at addressing the requirements of Senate Bill 5235. The state legislation lifts caps on the number of unrelated people allowed to share a home, and also lifts prohibitions on renters residing on lots with accessory dwellings. A vote on the measure is scheduled for the May 17 council meeting.

– Approved proposals totaling more than $200,000 to purchase a screenings conveyor for the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Two other items on the agenda — amending city code for permitting special events and awarding contracts for the city’s job order contracting program — were postponed to a future meeting.

In a special meeting at 6 pm, the council began discussing proposed changes to its Rules of Procedure and also interviewed Colin Torretta, a candidate for the Edmonds Sister City Commission. Torretta’s apppointment was approved as part of the council’s consent agenda during the 7 pm meeting.

— By Teresa Wippel

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