Looking compassionately at vehicle problems in Bolinas

09/21/2017

A surfer lays her board on the pavement and starts waxing it. A man climbs out of the truck that contains his life’s possessions and turns on a camp stove to make breakfast. A woman pulls out from the curb outside her home, knowing she won’t be able to park there again until the crowds clear on Sunday night. A newcomer drives slowly through town, narrowly avoiding a skateboarder and a dog, looking for the beach. This is Brighton Avenue on a Saturday morning.

Bolinas is hit hard by two forces—a sustained wave of visitation and an affordable housing crisis—that together bring a large number of vehicles into town. Now, thanks to an ordinance passed this year that allows the county to tailor parking restrictions by neighborhood and even street-by-street, the Bolinas Community Public Utility District has formed a subcommittee to focus on how to regulate long-term vehicle habitation and storage.

The committee, which includes representatives from the fire department, the Mesa Park board, the Bolinas Community Land Trust and other local groups, met for the second time last week. 

According to Jennifer Blackman, BCPUD’s general manager, the group hopes to tease apart a range of issues, from tourist parking and the effects of short-term vacation rentals to vehicle habitation and the long-term storage of vehicles on roads. “We’re trying to take a compassionate and comprehensive outlook and come up with a creative way, using the enforcement tools that are out there, to address the systemic problems,” Ms. Blackman said. “There’s a lot of empathy for the issue, given the lack of affordable housing and the crazy rental market situation, and for the people who don’t have other options right now.”

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who recommended that the utility district spearhead the process, said he hoped the group would have a “thoughtful” discussion before deciding how to use the new regulation mechanism. 

The ordinance, passed in January, allows the Board of Supervisors to evaluate whether a county road should have no parking of any vehicles at any time; no parking of vehicles other than automobiles, motorcycles and pickups between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.; or no overnight parking of commercial vehicles longer than 22 feet. 

“The community seems well split over the people who live in their vehicles and what to do about it,” Supervisor Rodoni said.

Homeowners on Brighton, Park, Hill and Terrace Avenues—roads heavily burdened by beach goers but also by long-term campers—sent a letter to Supervisor Rodoni back in January urging him to support the ordinance. They said long-term camping and vehicle storage “has been increasing from year to year for the past four years.”

The homeowners’ letter cites intrusions onto private property by street campers, confrontations between campers and residents regarding behavior and respect, drug deals, vehicle-based small businesses, the threat of waste and toxins emitted from occupied vehicles, open fires on the street and in Bolinas Park for cooking, public indecency—including campers showering in the street—and the “blighted appearance” of the streets.

The group forwarded their letter to BCPUD’s subcommittee last month, requesting regular public progress reports and ongoing opportunities for community input.

“Some residents are confronted by people living on the street, or just feel that the quality of life is declining,” Al Minvielle, a signatory on the letter who has owned a house on Brighton for over 30 years, said. “For me, the problem is the clutter that is really starting to accumulate.”

The homeowners’ letter states that “reporting this problem to the sheriff gets a timely response, but limited result,” and suggests a few possible regulatory steps. Since the county suspended an ordinance that criminalized living in one’s car in 2014 after a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that determined a similar ordinance in Los Angeles was “unconstitutionally vague” and “unintelligible,” the Sheriff’s Office has instead primarily enforced a rule that requires parked cars to move elsewhere after 72 hours. 

The letter suggests that the county amend the rule to designate a minimum distance that vehicles must be moved. It also suggests that the county establish a size limit for parked vehicles to discourage larger ones such as trailers and mobile homes.

“And if Bolinas wants vehicle habitation, then we need to get creative and find somewhere for people to habitate that’s a designated space, so the residents of streets like Brighton aren’t bearing the brunt of the situation,” Mr. Minvielle said.

The homeowners said community members have already floated multiple ideas, ranging from a registry of local homeowners willing to sponsor vehicle parking on their properties to providing parking and utilities at the firehouse or at Mesa Park in exchange for work. They even raised the possibility of an R.V. park. 

Ms. Blackman said that the members of the subcommittee agree with the homeowners that a distance should be determined for the 72-hour rule—such as two-tenths of a mile—but only on the condition that the county also implement, at a minimum, the provisions of the town-approved parking plan that designates certain resident-only parking zones downtown. The committee members were not supportive of an ordinance that would restrict specific types of vehicles, she said.

The issue of people living in their cars is more complicated, Ms. Blackman said. Arianne Dar, the executive director of the Bolinas Community Land Trust who also sits on the subcommittee, said the problems of vehicle habitation and storage “all go back to the issue of housing affordability in this area.”

The managing director of the land trust, Evie Wilhelm, said there are long-time community members living in their vehicles, mostly due to the lack of housing, but some by choice. The land trust wants to advocate for such people. “The majority of these people work in Bolinas or grew up here or have raised their children here,” she wrote in an email. “This is their home.” 

Along with increasing vehicle habitation and storage in recent years, complaints have also increased. Deputy Jason Swift, who has responded to many of these calls, said the Sheriff’s Office receives an average of about a call a day regarding vehicle habitation or storage in Bolinas, though most are repeat calls about the same problem or concern a vehicle that’s been moved to a new location.

“We issue citations for violations of the 72-hour law, or else registration violations and vehicle abatement warnings,” he said. “These citations usually have little effect, however.” He said deputies often talk with people living in their vehicles, offering help or directing them to county services.

At the request of the deputy, who has been focussing on the issues in Bolinas especially over the last year, the county counsel is investigating whether the county can enforce vehicle code on non-county roads in Bolinas, such as the unpaved roads on the Big Mesa.

Attorney Jack Siedman, BCPUD’s board president, sent a letter to the county last month asserting that although the town’s unpaved roads on the Big Mesa are “public highways” subject to the dominion and control of the utility district, they have historically also been subject to county vehicle code. Mr. Siedman expressed support for the county’s ongoing enforcement as well as the opinion that they can continue to do so without any legal changes. 

“We need to try to figure out the best course of action, in terms of enacting these ordinances so we are not just creating more homelessness by, say, taking away vehicles,” Deputy Swift said.  “It’s a fine line to figure out how to help the homeowners and the people living in their cars.”