Checking in on Santa Cruz’s ‘oversized vehicle ordinance’ 30 days later
After much rancor this fall regarding an oversized vehicle ordinance, the Santa Cruz City Council passed the measure by a vote of 5-2 on Nov. 9. The earliest it could have gone into effect was Dec. 9, but legally it can’t begin until a number of provisions are put in place. Lookout checks on when that might happen.
In September, a proposed oversized vehicle ordinance before the Santa Cruz City Council ignited passion from multiple angles.
Those in favor said the law — which would ban RVs from parking overnight on city streets — would reduce the trash and environmental damage they said was created by those living in the vehicles. Proponents, who include a significant number of Westside homeowners, also cited potential safety issues.
Opponents, largely consisting of advocates for those facing homelessness, called the measure cruel, and said the problem was at least partly caused by the city’s inadequate response to its larger housing and affordability issues. They also disputed homeowners’ concerns regarding safety and trash concerns, saying they were overblown.
That fervor continued through the ordinance’s passage on Nov. 9 via a 5-2 vote.
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Now, 30 days following the passage — the earliest date the ordinance could go into effect — some city leaders have expressed concern about what will happen, and if the city can actually do what needs to be done to make the law enforceable.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story did not clearly attribute the potential reasons as to why parking spaces had not yet been found by city staff. Additionally, the Coastal Commission has not formally expressed concerns regarding the ordinance. And the annual estimated costs for homelessness response, of which the oversize vehicle ordinance is a part, is $5 million.
Specifically, the city has to provide three emergency spaces for RV dwellers to use overnight before the law can go into effect. Though those spaces have been identified — located at the Police Department — enforcement will not begin, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith, until a permit program and signage has been put in place.
Four months after that point — the date it formally goes into effect — the law requires the creation of 30 permanent spaces for RVs. And a meeting next week with the Zoning Administrator next week could be key.
The oversized vehicle ordinance was introduced by Vice-Mayor Sonja Brunner and Councilmembers Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Renee Golder this fall, expanding upon the camping services and standards ordinance from this past spring.
With this ordinance, oversized vehicles — 20 or more feet long, or 8 or more feet high and 7 feet wide — would be prohibited from parking on city streets between midnight and 5 a.m. The vehicles would also be prohibited from using electric, gas and utility connections, having open fires, having unattached trailers, maintaining unsanitary conditions, and parking within 100 feet of intersections.
Kalantari-Johnson — who, when asked for comment, directed questions to city staff — told Lookout last month that the goal of the ordinance’s implementation was to get people permanent housing instead of making temporary solutions.
“Suggestions and solutions have been brought forward and have been very helpful ... people want this situation resolved on some level,” she said.
Yet for opponents and homelessness advocates, the ordinance has led to rising concerns for what this could mean for many individuals who live in those vehicles, and the larger issues of how it would be implemented.
Councilmember Justin Cummings, one of two dissenting votes on the ordinance, told Lookout following its passage: “I’m really upset and concerned about where we’re headed ... we need to get the programs, service providers and funding fleshed out before we pass laws.”
What does the city say?
Smith told Lookout last week that Dec. 9 would be the first possible date the ordinance could be implemented, but “full implementation requires safe parking to be up and running — that will not be happening by the 9th.”
The city was required under the law to provide three emergency spaces before it would be enforceable. Operationally, this also requires a permitting program be put in place as well as signage letting people know the new rules.
Four months after that point, it obligated itself to create 30 permanent overnight parking spaces.
Councilmember Sandy Brown, who voted against the ordinance, has connected with Deputy City Manager Lee Butler and Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle regarding the city staff’s efforts to date, but she said she remains unclear about when the law could go into effect.
“My sense from staff is that there is a reality of the fundamental challenges we have, both in terms of resources, money, space for sites, and the NIMBY challenge,” Brown said. “There’s a genuine commitment on the part of our staff to make the conditions associated with both [camping services and standards] and [oversized vehicle ordinance] to meet the requirements, and to provide alternatives.”
But she said the current council is focused on pursuing “enforcement-based approaches” with only a “nominal commitment to investing in the alternatives and sites.”
Last month’s midyear financial review of the city’s homelessness response put the annual costs at about $5 million, of which the oversized vehicle ordinance would be a part. Costs related to safe RV parking and other costs related to oversize vehicles were estimated at about $1.2 million.
estimated that the implementation of the oversized vehicle ordinance could potentially cost the city around $5 million.
Mayor Donna Meyers, who supported the ordinance, said city staff is working diligently on the operational aspects, but that she believes the most important part is that the ordinance was passed.
“When we do put the operational pieces together, we want it to be an effective program and it accomplishes its intent,” she said. “It will become operational when we have all of the pieces together, so we can do a good job.”
What the statistics say
City staff provided specific data on how oversized vehicles affected the community prior to the ordinance’s passage.
Since April 2019, volunteers with the Santa Cruz Police Department issued 1,490 tickets to owners of oversized vehicles, amounting to $140,649. The three top fine balances for individual vehicles amounted to $9,852, $8,056 and $7,249.
From Nov. 1 to Dec. 6 of this year, 519 storage citations — running at $118 apiece — were issued, amounting to $61,242. For the same period, 228 vehicles were cited for lack of visible vehicle registration, amounting to $2,280.
It is unclear from the data how much of this has been collected.
Community member views
During the first and second readings of the ordinance this fall, more than 800 community members wrote in to the council, expressing both support and opposition. At the 30-day mark, Lookout reached out to some of these people for their thoughts and whether they had noticed any changes.
Diana Magor, a resident who supported the ordinance due to garbage pileup, has noticed a change in the number of vehicles along Delaware Avenue, but not a drastic difference — perhaps a 20-30% decrease. She was not aware of whether the city had mailed communication regarding the ordinance’s implementation or not.
“I’ve noticed some other vehicles parked along Escalona [Drive], but those aren’t a concern — those aren’t associated with garbage,” she said.
Westside resident and ordinance proponent Bill Brooks said he hadn’t received any communication from the city, but believes there are still questions to be answered for owners of oversized vehicle, and what they should be aware of in terms of permitting.
“I’m assuming it goes into effect the way it is written,” he said. “I’d be interested to see the standard you would have to meet to get a permit.”
Local organizer Kayla Kumar, who opposes the ordinance, had a similar experience, saying “there just doesn’t seem like there’s any method for an average, everyday person to know what’s going on.”
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Kumar has followed the ordinance since its inception, and has been talking with people who would be directly affected. Since its passage, she said there hasn’t been much, if any, communication from the city about how it might be enforced and when it might start.
She said she was concerned that the city could just tow RVs by using current municipal codes.
“I wouldn’t put it past the city to just enforce it without a plan or services in place,” Kumar said.
What happens next
In 2015, when the council passed a similar ordinance, the California Coastal Commission took issue with it due to the city’s inability to provide data and alternate parking sites. It’s unclear whether a similar issue would occur for the current ordinance.
In looking to what next week’s meeting — and the potential response from the Coastal Commission — could bring, Brown said much is left to be done.
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“This 100% should have been figured out before it was brought to council,” she said. “This was initiated to demonstrate to a particular, narrow constituency that their concerns were being addressed ... 2022 will be the year we see if our money is where our mouth is.”
For Meyers — who is finishing up her term as mayor — the ordinance addresses a “massive issue on the people with the lived experience and on the community.”
“When you’re tackling such a complex policy issue, you can’t fix everything at once, nor are we trying to,” she said. “We have to balance folks who are in homelessness with all of the other community pieces as well.”