Workers in haz-mat clothing work to clean up trash at encampments along Quintana Road. Photo submitted
The City of Morro Bay is hardening its laws and attitude somewhat on people illegally camping in town, passing a new ordinance that will bring the actions of City officials fighting blight new authority under a recent court case, but also hitting homeless folks especially hard.
And evidence of this new stance arose recently, when City officials helped clear people out of private property and what had become a trash-strewn strip alongside several blocks of Quintana Road, one of the City’s main commercial districts.
That’s where a number of homeless men and women had set up camp, pitching tents amongst the evergreen trees on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between Quintana and Willow Camp Creek and adjacent to Hwy 1.
That area on Quintana — from 399-785 Quintana — is highly visible to motorists and shoppers and has been talked about on the NextDoor Morro Bay social media platform for months.
City officials said they’ve had to deal with many complaints about Quintana Road and it’s an issue that Police Chief Amy Watkins said could get worse.
“Failure to adopt the ordinances will predictably see a steady increase in an ongoing and continuing drain on City resources, time and money,” she said in her Dec. 21 report to council. “This is from ever increasing city staff responses [including from police department, fire department, code enforcement division and public works department] to the growing public health, safety and welfare harms generated by lack of regulations like those in the proposed ordinances.”
Camping Long Regulated
Camping in town has long been regulated and is illegal unless one is parked inside a licensed RV park or campground. Those places, plus local motels and vacation rentals, collect bed taxes on an overnight stay, one of the main money sources for the City’s annual budget. (However, the two State Parks Campgrounds in town, do not collect the City’s bed taxes.)
Parking overnight and sleeping in one’s vehicle (or pitching a tent in the dunes) — really anywhere in town other than those approved businesses — though illegal hasn’t stopped people in RVs from parking overnight on the street or at Morro Rock.
Police occasionally crack down on such things, issuing expensive tickets to RVers, if they can make contact with them. Sometimes, police will knock on doors of an RV parked in a city lot, like Front Street, but if no one answers the knock, there isn’t much they can do.
While it’s illegal to camp overnight there, it isn’t illegal to park and leave one’s vehicle overnight, so when no one answers a knock at 3 a.m., they might get a 72-hour notice to move the vehicle, but that’s a fix-it ticket not a citation.
Council Funds New Law
The City Council was asked to allocate $50,000 to help pay for the costs of enforcing the new law.
“Adoption of the ordinances,” Chief Watkins said, “will result in upfront additional City enforcement costs, including the costs of retaining personal property held under the ordinance and cleanup of encampments, which may involve the collection and disposal of trash and potential hazardous material response. The Police Department and Code Enforcement Division will be primarily responsible for enforcement and handling of personal property, while the Public Works Department will provide support for coordinating the pickup and disposal of trash and hazmat response through its contractors.”
The money, she said, was to “support the implementation of these ordinances, begin the cleanup and securing storage containers for the retention of personal property during cleanups.
“Future costs are unknown and are dependent on changes in the resident homeless population and the amount of enforcement associated with the proposed ordinance.”
Back in December, the City Council got a report on the overall issue of homeless encampments. which led to adoption of an emergency ordinance, No. 664, and the eventual adoption of Chapter 666 into the Municipal Codes.
Homeless Working Group
Last November City Manager Yvonne Kimball convened a “City Homeless Working Group” with City department heads, staff and homeless outreach service groups, according to the working groups report to the City Council. The purpose was to address the growing homeless population in town and the growing calls by the public for the City to do something about it.
The report said, “concerns are often raised at public meetings, through calls for service to Police and Code Enforcement, to City administrators, to Council Members, and in public forums such as Facebook or NextDoor. During the pandemic, encampments expanded while more residents used the trails, pathways, and public infrastructure where persons experiencing homelessness often reside. Pandemic-related impacts, historically low vacancy rates, rising rents, and conversion of rental housing into ownership housing have all contributed to increasing homelessness.
“Staff estimates there are approximately 100 people experiencing homelessness in Morro Bay at any given time.” Morro Bay’s official population as of 2021 is 10,779, according to the Census Bureau.
Defining the Issue
The issue, according to the report, is when campsites grow out of control. When this happens in public areas “especially [but not limited to] when an encampment site develops and spreads out over large areas,” the report said, “generates considerable garbage or waste, or when unlawful camping, coupled with other illegal activity, impacts a sensitive land use such as schools, degrades and destroys environmental areas, and creates dangerous water shed into waterways and the ocean.
“Camping on public property creates public health and safety hazards for city residents and for people living in encampment sites, including impacts related to the disposal of hazardous materials and unsanitary conditions that can lead to an infestation of vermin and the spread of communicable diseases. Camping on public property has also been a problem for Public Works staff.”
The report adds these camps impede people and emergency responses, and any evacuations that businesses and homes might experience, “as well as exacerbates the likelihood of conflict, intimidations and threats to the public safety for both the un-housed, as well as all members of the public, and furthermore the collection of biohazard materials, human waste, trash and rubbish near businesses and residential areas contributes to a general decline in public health, safety and welfare.”
The report also names people living in vehicles that park on private property as being problems too. “The use of vehicles for human habitation overnight on private property used for business or non-profit organization operations also impacts public health and safety. These impacts are mostly trash, food wastes, human waste and contaminated medical waste and the unauthorized discharge of grey water and hazardous water.”
Discarded hypodermic needles, have been a growing problem in town, as several years ago, a young girl playing near the creek at Lila Keiser Park was stuck by a needle found laying on the ground. That incident triggered the first major cleanup of the creek area by the City and police department. The cleanup cleared a few tons of trash, and evicted everyone from the woods there, including one local man who had been living there over 20 years.
Sweeping New Ordinance
The new camping ordinance, officially “Chapter 8.26 to Title 8 of the Morro Bay Municipal Code,” regulates the time, place and manner for all camping outside RV parks and campgrounds:
• Time: Any camping or camp, where allowed, “may only occur for 24-hours at a time in any one location. After 24 hours in one location, the Camp and all associated Camp Materials must be moved at least one street block or 600 feet, whichever is greater, to another allowed location.”
So the homeless would be required to break camp and move to a new spot at least two football fields away every morning and anyone staying in a vehicle has to park somewhere new every night.
• Place: Camping is not allowed within 200-feet of “a residentially zoned property boundary or within any area zoned residential, according to the City’s Zoning Map” (found in the muni code).
Camping is also not allowed in any mixed-use or commercial visitor serving zones; on public sidewalks and other right-of-ways or blocking driveways; in vehicle and bicycle lanes, the roundabout or bus stops; or within 1,000 feet of any shelter set up for emergency evacuations. Any street closures for construction by the City are off limits too.
It also bans camping within or within 300-feet of any school, playground or “critical infrastructure.”
The ordinance also cites specific locations owned by the City where camping is regulated — “Morro Bay City Hall, Morro Bay Community Center, Morro Bay Veterans Hall, Morro Bay Public Library, Morro Bay Centennial Parkway and Stairway, and such further designations made in writing by the City Manager, or her or his designee, upon the written recommendation of the Morro Bay Police Chief and the Morro Bay Fire Chief.”
The ordinance effectively kicks people out of the woods, too. Camping is banned “Within, or within 200 feet of, either a very high Fire Severity Zone or a high Fire Severity Zone.”
• Manner: The City also regulates the “manner” of camping, or how one sets up a camp. Camping materials like tents, or any personal property and even the people themselves, “may not obstruct, block, prevent access to, or impede: sidewalk accessibility or passage; clear vision of moving vehicles or bicycles; usage of fire hydrants; usage or function of Public Utilities, Critical Infrastructure, or other City infrastructure; or, otherwise obstruct, block, prevent access to, or impede the use of the Rights-of-Way for vehicular, pedestrian, bicycle, or other passage.”
The law limits a campsite to no more than 12-feet by 12-feet or 144-square feet — a little bigger than an average garden shed. “The intent of this section is to allow a person to sleep protected from the elements and maintain the essentials for living, while still allowing others to use public spaces as designed and intended.” And the law now says no camp can be within a 150-foot radius of another camp, in order to prevent a buildup of encampments in a single spot.
The law outlaws open fires but does allow one to try and keep warm. “Types of flameless cooking stoves and other flameless devices for keeping warm, as consistent with this subsection, are permitted,” the law reads.
They can’t build makeshift shelters or things like plywood lean-tos attached to trees or utility poles, however, “Items such as tents, and similar items used for shelter that are readily portable, are not structures for purposes of this section.”
The law prohibits an accumulation of stuff — “vehicle tires, bicycles, or associated components (except as needed for an individual’s personal use), gasoline, generators, lumber, household furniture, propane tanks, combustible material or gases, or other items or materials, — is prohibited, other than what is related to camping, sleeping or keeping warm and dry.”
As for homeless pets, “All animals, in the custody, ownership or companionship of an individual, must be leashed or crated at all times.”
The new law also limits camps to no more than two people and two animals (dogs).
The law will seek voluntary compliance as a first resort, giving violators “a reasonable opportunity to cure or remedy the alleged violation.”
But when someone won’t or doesn’t comply, the law gives the City authority to force them out after first giving advanced notice.
Morro Bay residents got a look at what enforcement might look like last week, when the campers along Quintana were cleared out by the police. But that was a little different, according to the police chief.
Police Chief Watkins told Estero Bay News, “The area that was addressed last week was a result of the private property owners requesting their property be cleared from all trespassers.
“The trespassers were served notice on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with a final chance to leave the property without penalty by Friday evening.”
Though the City coordinated a trash hauler to pick up the Quintana area, Chief Watkins said it wasn’t a full cleanup. “This was not a cleanup,” she said, “although the City Public Works department did clear some debris from the easement. City and other service providers made frequent visits over the weeks leading up to the advisement. “
“The private property,” she added, “was not cleaned or cleared outside of the subjects removing their property. This is private property and will need to be cleanup up by the property owners.”
With reference to the community’s discussions on NextDoor and one question many had, “Where are they supposed to go?” Chief Watkins said, “This is private property. The shelter that serves Morro Bay is 40 Prado [in SLO]. I hope many of these subjects seek services that can assist them with short term housing such as drug and alcohol programs. We continue to work with all service organizations to support these individuals in finding shelter and potential housing.”
She said no one got arrested with the eviction done last week. “This is private property,” she restated. “They are not allowed to return. No trespass orders were served. This is just an advisement; no citations were given last week. Two citations have been this week for individuals who were served last week and failed to leave the property.”
Is Quintana the main encampment location, as the homeless used to live in the woods along Morro Creek, too? “We have un-housed individuals residing throughout Morro Bay,” Chief Watkins said. “This is a large encampment location that was created when Vistra Energy reclaimed their private property next to Lila Keiser. Same un-housed residents.”
The Quintana Road folks have been causing problems. “This area has become an area with an increased number of calls for service as a result of the large encampments and the activity that accompanies encampments,” Chief Watkins said. “We have received dozens of complaints related to blocked access, aggressive panhandling, dog bites, trespassing, drug usage, and theft. Just to name a few.”