Missoula officials: Ban on ‘urban camping’ intended to address sanitary, safety issues

Cities across the nation have cracked down on long-term RV and travel trailer parking as “urban camping” has proliferated in recent years. (TheDrive.com)

After a few extreme cases of “urban camping” challenged local police and health officers, the Missoula City Council is considering a prohibition on the practice.

The new regulation would not adversely affect visitors parking their RV or travel trailer outside the residence of a friend or relative, and in fact, would increase from three days to five the limit on guest campers.

But camping in the city right-of-way – alongside city streets – would no longer be allowed for others so inclined.

The police department could suspend the rules for special events.

Passed on first reading at Monday night’s City Council meeting, the measure will be open to public comment at a Dec. 18 hearing after which the council is expected to vote.

Mike Haynes, director of Development Services, said the regulatory change came after health and law enforcement officials and the city attorney’s office struggled to deal with several long-term campers who caused sanitation issues and safety concerns.

In a memo to the City Council, Haynes explained: “Temporary and occasional cases of ‘urban camping’ rarely generate complaints, but there have been cases where individuals have parked in neighborhoods for long periods of time, presented significant problems for residents, and generated citizen nuisance complaints that have required code enforcement and law enforcement interventions.”

In one case, a couple camped for nearly two years in various Missoula neighborhoods, resisting all attempts at enforcement by moving whenever neighbors began to complain.

“The obvious issues created by urban camping relate to public health (given there are no sewer, potable water or waste disposal services) and neighborhood impacts,” Haynes said.

“While the city of Missoula and the City-County Health Department have regulations that are intended to address issues created by urban camping, it has become evident that ordinance changes are needed to very specifically address what is and is not permitted in this regard so that when enforcement and/or legal actions become necessary the city’s regulations are clear and defensible.”

On Monday, Southside resident Cathy Deschamps endorsed the changes while asking for several clarifications in the amendment’s wording for the sake of clarity. Is the proposed $100 fine assessed per day of violation? she asked. Is it allowable to sleep in a car or is that, too, covered by the ordinance?

The obvious concern is that some residents camp long-term on city streets after they become homeless.

But Deschamps said camping is not a solution to homelessness, and the city has many agencies and nonprofit groups to which residents can turn should they lose their home.

She related the many streets filled with urban campers she saw when her work took her to Seattle on a regular basis several years ago. Missoula, she said, does not want to replicate Seattle’s struggle.

As amended Dec. 1 by the City Council’s Public Works Committee, the amendment says: “No person shall occupy a recreational vehicle parking on a public street, road, alley, boulevard or media in the city.”

The exceptions include both guests of local residents, who may park in the block where their friends or relatives live for up to five days in any 30-day period, and instances where the Police Department makes an exception to accommodate a special event.

In all cases, campers are not allowed “to dump or deposit any sink water or sewage from a motor vehicle or vehicle designed for camping anywhere except in a disposal site approved by the city-county health department.”

Violate the ban on urban camping and the fine would be $100. Violate the prohibition on dumping wastewater or sewage and the fine would be $500.

Monday night’s vote was unanimous and came without discussion by council members, as the only intent was to place the measure on the Dec. 18 agenda for a public hearing and vote. That’s when council members will offer their thoughts on the changes.

The matter also could be considered at a committee meeting prior to the public hearing if there are further clarifications or concerns to be considered.