Homeless groups and some freedom-of-religion advocates are upset over a strict new proposal that would, if passed, make it difficult for...
Homeless groups and some freedom-of-religion advocates are upset over a strict new proposal that would, if passed, make it difficult for temporary homeless encampments such as Tent City 4 to locate in the city of Bellevue.
The regulations, set to be discussed at a public hearing Monday, were drawn up by city planners and will eventually be considered by the City Council.
The draft rules are more restrictive than similar ordinances recently passed by other jurisdictions, including one approved last month by the Metropolitan King County Council.
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Opponents say the Bellevue proposal — which regulates everything from bathroom facilities to communicable diseases — would make it nearly impossible for churches to host tent cities and could violate freedom-of-religion laws.
“Bellevue has really set back the cause of religious freedom,” said the Rev. Sanford Brown, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which represents more than 400 churches and 15 denominations in the region. “It is trying to nit-pick the churches to the point of harassment.”
Brown said the council’s concerns have been passed on to city staff, but that if significant changes aren’t made before it’s adopted, the group would consider legal action.
The public will be able to comment on the proposed ordinance during a hearing at 8 p.m. Monday at Bellevue City Hall, 11511 Main St.
“We would find it our responsibility to challenge it in court. These regulations are frivolous and arbitrary. … We just can’t let it stand.”
Under the rules, temporary outdoor homeless encampments would be limited to a 60-day stay rather than the current 90 days, would require hot and cold running water (which tent cities do not currently have) and would allow no more than 100 people, and sometimes fewer, depending on site size (the current rules have no specific limits).
Shelter operators also would have to immediately report to health authorities the name and address of anyone “known to have or suspected of having a communicable disease.”
“That totally breaches confidentiality — it forces churches to out somebody,” Brown said.
Other proposed changes include:
• Camps would need one sink for every six people, one shower for every 10 people, one toilet for every 15 people and mechanical refrigeration for perishable food.
• The camp would have to follow the set-back requirements that apply to the existing site user (usually a church).
• A camp would have to be surrounded by a “view-obscuring fence” with a minimum height of 6 feet.
Opponents complain that some of the language was taken from other laws, such as those governing migrant-farm worker housing. But those situations are different from a temporary homeless shelter and should not be used as a model, they say.
“There are dozens of picky little things that they want to micro-manage,” said Bruce Thomas, a resident of Tent City 4, now at a Kirkland church. “It would make it impossible to locate there.”
Though some Bellevue churches have discussed the issue, none have yet moved to host the encampment, which has been roving around the Eastside for about a year.
Opponents agree that tent cities should be regulated, but they want Bellevue to use the recent King County ordinance instead. They say it strikes the right balance between allowing religious institutions to host the camps and responding to neighborhood safety and cleanliness concerns.
“Why reinvent the wheel?” Thomas said. “We already went through this process with King County and all the groups involved and reached a compromise.”
City representatives say the draft ordinance is just that — a draft — and that changes can still be made.
“It’s intended to stimulate a discussion,” said City Manager Steve Sarkozy. “It’s not Bellevue’s intention to infringe on the constitutional rights of any church. I fully expect modifications [to the proposal].”
If passed, the Bellevue ordinance would create a new section of law to deal specifically with homeless camps. Currently, the shelters fall under the same section as other temporary uses, such as sidewalk sales and Christmas-tree lots.
Under the new proposal, the siting of a homeless encampment would become a more public — but also a lengthier — process, said Mary Kate Berens, a city planner.
Currently, no public notice is required when a group applies for a homeless-camp permit, and there is no public-comment period or appeal process if residents dispute the permit issued.
If the proposed ordinance is enacted, it would require public notice and a public-comment period when a group applies for a homeless-camp permit. After the director of planning and community development makes a decision, it could be appealed to a city hearing examiner.
After the City Council receives all public input on the ordinance, it will suggest changes and likely vote by the end of July.
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org