Frustration shows during homeless discussion at Aberdeen council meeting

What began as a first reading of an ordinance regarding state-mandated requirements for zoning for homeless shelters turned into a discussion about Aberdeen’s role in sheltering the homeless at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

The city had drafted the ordinance to conform with House Bill 1220, which passed during the 2021 state legislative session.

Acting city attorney Jeff Myers said the bill says cities “shall not prohibit transitional housing or permanent supportive housing in residential zones, and shall not prohibit emergency indoor shelters in emergency indoor housing zones where hotels are allowed, effective Sept. 30.”

All cities are required to adjust their zoning code to allow for the bill’s provisions, with the Sept. 30 deadline written into the law. However, as of Wednesday, most cities in the county have not passed such adjustments.

“There are questions about what process needs to be followed in order to adopt amendments to conform with this,” said Myers, “and whether or not your zoning code could prohibit these regardless of whether you have passed this ordinance or not. My reading would be that if you get applications for these types of facilities after Sept. 30 in a zone where hotels are allowed for even a day you may not be able to use your zoning code to deny those applications. And that’s a matter of state law trumping local ordinance.”

The ordinance presented to the City Council on Wednesday appeared hastily thrown together, with references to the city of Ocean Shores and duplications of definitions — “There’s a lot of things wrong with it,” said Council member Tiesa Meskis, “so I’d like to actually table it and send it back to have it rewritten and have those things corrected. And if possible have it brought before the ad hoc committee on homelessness before bringing it back to the council.”

Council President Dee Anne Shaw requested the ordinance go through the city’s planning commission for review.

“My preference is to go through the process and not try and rush through something that has so many people with a lot to say about,” said Shaw. “We need to hear from the planning commission and our ad hoc homeless committee.”

Council member Kati Kachman also requested Myers take another review of the ordinance to make sure it was in line with the state requirements. Mayor Pete Schave said he was comfortable with tabling the ordinance “to make sure that every council member is fully aware of what the meaning of this is and how it’s going to work and that we go through the process properly.”

The council approved sending the ordinance back for review. City Community Development Director Lisa Scott said she would schedule a planning commission session that would include the city’s ad hoc committee on homelessness to review, and hopes to have it back before the council for review in November.

Current situation

Later in the meeting, Council member Liz Ellis suggested putting a portable toilet at the site of the TASL tent camp adjacent to City Hall. While officially closed, the camp has grown to close to 20 people again and the city has little legal resource to clear it.

“As we’ve heard and perhaps even seen, without appropriate facilities, it becomes a public health problem. There are now about 20-some people staying at the city parking lot until the city can come up with another site for people to move to,” said Ellis. “We seem to be locked into managing this current situation as best we can, and to me providing a (temporary toilet) is just bare bones basics.”

The cost of a temporary toilet is $150 a month and it’s possible it could be paid for with some of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds. Ellis recommended the amount come out of the general fund through the end of the year.

There was other discussion about the county’s responsibility to help with the homeless situation, which is not Aberdeen-specific, but Aberdeen bears the burden because of its location in the middle of the bulk of the county’s social services, and potential for the Coastal Community Action Program (CCAP) to step up. Some asked why the camp, now closed, still exists and is growing.

“I’m unfortunately the one that’s responsible for that camp out there,” said Public Works Director Rick Sangder.

Public Works has been charged with city cleanup, including the TASL camp. “I am very concerned. We fight every day trying to close that down, and we’ve contracted legal services about options and they are still working on it.”

Because there is no alternate facility for the homeless in the city there is little that can be done other than issue fines to campers for illegal camping, said Myers.

Sangder’s concern with placing a portable toilet at the site? “If we put services out there it is no longer an illegal camp,” said Sangder. “We’re accepting a camp, and it’s not an illegal camp. And that’s our argument all along: it’s an illegal camp. So if you do this, it’s going to tie my hands” as he continues to try to shut down the camp as instructed by the City Council.

Meskis said the reason the council voted to close the camp in the first place was because “there was potential hope” from the county, which “was actually going to move forward with a shelter and we would have something in place. Had I known that two of our county commissioners were just going to table it and let it die I would have voted much differently.”

In April, the county had about $1.5 million in state and federal funds for a homeless shelter to be run by Chaplains on the Harbor. In April, the Board of County Commissioners failed to act on a contract with the organization and the funds went unused.

Commissioner Vickie Raines supported the effort, but the two other Commissioners, Kevin Pine and Jill Warne, balked at the idea of a low-barrier shelter, a requirement to use the funds available.

“I believe that we should engage with CCAP and get more active with these people and make sure that they know that if they have facilities that these people can use, make sure they know about them,” said Meskis. “You know, that’s kind of their job.”

After the discussion, Ellis withdrew her motion for the portable toilet and Schave said he would discuss the topic at an upcoming CCAP meeting as a member of the board.