Thurston County Commissioners agreed to temporarily hold off the approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the county and the city of Olympia that would relocate some two dozen recreational vehicles from Ensign Road to Carpenter Road after several residents expressed their concerns about the plan at yesterday's regular meeting.
Such a relocation would free up parking spaces that previously had been used by hospital and medical staff at Providence St. Peter Hospital.
The hospital's chief cxecutive, Darin Goss, spoke during the meeting. In his statement, Goss shared the impacts caused by the parked RVs. "As you know, emergency vehicles have self-selected to re-route to Lilly Road which is the longer route for patients coming up from downtown Olympia...we believe that this is unsustainable," he said.
The Olympia City Council voted on Monday to sign the Memorandum.
The relocation plan faces legal issues
For nearly two hours, the commissioners listened to comments coming from concerned residents and local business owners. While speakers have shared valid concerns, what caught the commissioners' interest is that the county might be violating the county's own ordinance.
In the public hearing, Olympia resident John Petit claimed that the Carpenter Road property failed to undergo gopher inspection. Generally, the inspection determines whether the property serves as a critical habitat for endangered species of the Mazama pocket gopher.
Petit claimed that even if the county signed the MOU, the relocation cannot move forward since the approval process for the gopher inspection will have to wait until June. "So your project right now would be illegal to move forward before getting clear into July at least," he said.
Assistant County Manager Robin Campbell clarified that the county has already submitted an application for the gopher inspection to Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) on Oct. 25 and is awaiting the 28-day review process. If the CPED refused to grant the approval for the gopher inspection, the section of the MOU which talks about the temporary relocation to the Carpenter Road site would be stripped out.
Commission receives major backlash
Olympia resident Terry Harp presented a petition signed by 450 concerned neighbors and others who opposed the relocation. "We anticipate it's going to get larger," Harp said about the petition. "My community does not feel that they are getting heard." Harb continued, "we in this community have many questions… [such as] why must this failure with the city of Olympia become the responsibility of our neighborhood?"
Law enforcement officers also agreed with Harp's statement. Thurston County Deputy and President of the Sheriff's Deputy Association Knute Lehmann said, "There is no reason we should subject ourselves to the same issues the cities are facing because of their inability, or frankly their negligence to handle the issue themselves. The city of Olympia had been notorious in their mismanagement of this issue."
The deputy continued, "the individuals living in Ensign Road chose to live on Ensign Road without regard to anyone else but themselves. The fact that they are effectively aware of blocking a main thoroughfare to a hospital...and refuse to leave the area voluntarily speaks volumes of their true intentions."
Business owners takes the hit
Local business owners also came forward to express safety concerns. One of the owners of Debbi's Dance Studio, Andrea Patton, issued an emotional statement. "As a dance studio owner, and teacher myself my goal is always to provide a safe and healthy environment for my students.... I'm not feeling it's going to be a safe and healthy place once the encampment moves as proposed," Patton said.
She added that their numerous encounters with homeless individuals had led them to believe that business owners and law enforcement officers are not equipped to handle the challenges of having an encampment in the neighborhood.
Viking Lounge owner Carmen Hubert said that the proposal provides an added burden to business owners who are already struggling with the economic impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. "I am concerned about the additional economic injury that will be on our shoulders now, because people will not want to come," Hubert said. She also believed that the county did not have enough funds to compensate businesses who needed to provide additional security measures.
Hubert continued, "as far as I'm concerned I don't think that there's any evidence..that will lead me to believe that you have any ability to control this mess once you relocate people here. It will only grow there."
Officials push for approval
In his statement, Goss also asked two things from the city of Olympia:One is, when this move happens, there is not allowed growth on upper Ensign Road. And most importantly, the second thing is that we ensure that the city acts as expeditiously as they can on the longer-term solution."
City officials also remained optimistic about the transfer. Lacey City Councilmember Carolyn Cox assured that individuals who will be relocated at the county-owned property are the most vulnerable, and "the most likely to be good neighbors." She shared, "I am comfortable with the responsible approach and safeguards proposed today."
Chair of the Regional Housing Council and Olympia City Councilmember Jim Cooper also spoke during the meeting. He shared that the community needs to see homelessness as a collective issue. "There’s no neighborhood in Thurston County that’s not touched by this crisis...there’s no neighborhood without homeless encampments near it and there’s no neighborhood without children...Its a failure of our society, and we have to do our best while we wait for larger interventions,” Cooper said.
Olympia Mayor Cheryl Shelby also offered a statement during the public hearing. She shared that homelessness is a complex issue which is caused by numerous factors. Shelby also explained that the city council had difficulty dealing with the Ensign Road Encampment due to funding and logistics issues.
“I know what unsanctioned camps look like and the impact that they have on surrounding neighbors; this will not be that situation,” the Olympia Mayor assured. She continued, “the hard truth is that local governments can't manage a problem as complex as homelessness, but not trying isn't an option.”
The commissioners unanimously agreed to hold off the motion for the approval of the MOU until the next BOCC meeting. “I don't think we have to move forward when we have doubts,” Commissioner Gary Edwards said.
A public meeting will be held tomorrow evening, Thu., Nov. 4, at 6 p.m. to provide information to the public about the proposed relocation of the RVs to Carpenter Road. Click this link to attend.
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