Finding that a staff-imposed emergency ban on recreational vehicle parking is fully justified, the East Palo Alto City Council voted on Tuesday night to extend the moratorium on RV parking along the dead-end portion of Weeks Street.
The ban, which was approved 4-0 with Mayor Ruben Abrica absent, was set to expire on Jan. 15. It will now remain in place until May 31, when the rainy season ends.
City staff instituted the ban in advance of a storm in mid-November that weather forecasters said would likely cause flooding. The 1100 block of Weeks Street between Pulgas Avenue and the Baylands is a low-lying area prone to ponding during rainstorms. Staff determined that the RVs were situated in the middle of a health and safety hazard after they discovered that some RV dwellers had dumped 6,000 gallons of raw sewage into the storm drain, which had overflowed onto the street. Staff was concerned about spreading contamination if the street flooded during rainstorms.
Flooding that breached the curbs did occur the weekend after the ban went into effect, Assistant City Manager Sean Charpentier noted. Given a recent increase of Hepatitis A in homeless communities throughout the state, which can be spread by fecal contamination, the city chose to shut down the encampment and disinfect the street, he said.
Mark Dinan, a Runnymede Street resident whose home is just behind the Weeks Street site, said the issue is primarily one of health and safety.
"It's unconscionable to let the RVs stay there," he said.
Other residents support leaving the RV dwellers alone.
"All of this is happening in a context we cannot forget," said Kyra Brown, social justice program director at Youth United for Community Action, an East Palo Alto-based nonprofit advocacy group. She noted the regional housing crisis and gentrification that is taking place in the city.
Patricia Lopez, whose house is in the 1100 block of Weeks, agreed.
"Homelessness has different faces now," she said, noting that she opposed closing the street to the RVs. Most of the dwellers have been clean and respectful, she said.
But Charpentier said extending the ban would keep the area decontaminated through the rest of the winter rainy season and it would give staff and the city time to develop programs to help the RV dwellers live in safe and sanitary conditions. Staff is also working on a potential citywide ban of oversized vehicles after an influx of commercial trucks, RVs and big-rigs that have often come from other communities, he said.
This week, staff counted the number of RVs in the Ravenswood Business District on Pulgas Avenue, Tara Street and Bay Road. Out of 22 RVs located on those streets, East Palo Alto residents own 36 percent of the vehicles while 64 percent are registered in other cities, Charpentier noted.
Council members were initially cautious about extending the ban. The city does not want to further displace its residents who use RVs as their last resort for shelter, they said.
"The fear of losing your home is forever there," Vice Mayor Lisa Gauthier said. "How do we work together?"
Gauthier asked how the city determines which RVs will be towed. Police Chief Albert Pardini explained that under state ordinance the city (as in many other municipalities) enforces a 72-hour parking restriction after which a vehicle must be moved beyond a certain distance. Officers may tag vehicles of any size that violate the restriction; thereafter the vehicles are at risk of being towed.
The city has only towed three RVs in the Ravenswood district since the Weeks Street ban. One of the RVs was inoperable, but officers tried to work with the owner, who was having personal issues. Eventually, she decided to surrender the vehicle because she could not repair it, he said.
Charpentier said banning the RVs from Weeks had not ended the sanitation problem. On Monday, the city towed a vehicle on Tara Street after the owner had purposefully cut the pipe to his sewage storage tank. The vehicle was leaking raw human waste all over the street, he said. A photograph he exhibited showed brown liquid spread over part of the street toward a storm drain.
Some RV dwellers and their supporters took exception to the images, which they said are deceptive. Most RV owners are law-abiding and properly dispose of their waste at stations in Menlo Park or Half Moon Bay that accept the waste for a charge.
Pastor Paul Bains, co-founder of Project WeHope, a nonprofit working with the homeless population that is working to help the RV dwellers, also said that the number of "bad apples" is small. "It reflects badly on everybody else," he added.
But emotions run high over the RV issue. Dozens of RV owners and their supporters insulted city staff at a Nov. 16 Public Works and Transportation Commission meeting when staff asked commissioners to support an RV parking ban ordinance that was heading to the council. The commission tabled a vote on the ordinance until they could study the issue.
Some speakers at that meeting accused the City Manager's Office of a conspiracy to rid the town of RVs to make way for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's The Primary School to be built on the block. The project was stalled until recently because of a building moratorium on new water hookups. That problem will now be resolved after an agreement to buy water shares from the city of Mountain View.
At Tuesday's council meeting, the ban extension was the last item on the night's agenda. Some of the more than two-dozen residents who stayed for the hearing raised similar concerns that the health claims are a ruse.
But City Councilman Larry Moody said removing the RVs from Weeks was a health and safety matter that the city could not ignore.
"I just don't have a sense of a conspiracy theory," he said, adding there is no alliance between the city and The Primary School for creating a smooth path for their development.
"Anyone that's lived here or moved here more than a year ago knows that the bottom of Weeks will flood. ... It was absolutely appropriate for staff to get in there and make a decision," he said. "Weeks is not designed to be the home of RVs. Residents live there; residents ride their bikes there."
Moody noted that the council is fast-tracking the issue and is due to discuss a "safe parking" program on Jan. 16. Staff is meeting this week with faith leaders to look at potential church sites where the vehicles can park overnight, Charpentier added.
Bains said that two churches are interested and two others are considering hosting some of the RVs. The main issues are security, waste disposal and insurance against liability. The council expressed an interest in finding money to help the churches with these issues. Council members also asked staff to look at possible ways to use city-owned property for RV parking and what sanitary services might be brought in.
But the council also asked staff to figure out how the city could identify and prevent newcomers from flocking to East Palo Alto to live in their RVs. Once the city helps its own citizens, it doesn't want to become a magnet for everyone else as other cities crack down on their own RV-dwelling communities, council members said.
In early 2018, the city will also consider the potential ban on oversized-vehicle parking, including RVs. The Public Works and Transportation Commission plans to discuss the proposed ban on Feb. 21.