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Council briefed on tent city reg’s limits

Port Orchard City Council members were reminded on Tuesday night that new state regulations prohibit them from passing city ordinances that would make it impossible for a nonprofit agency to establish a tent city for the homeless on its property.

But in the interest of protecting its residents, there could be enough wiggle room in the new regulations that the city could at least make doing so difficult enough to give a potential host second thoughts.

During their Tuesday night work study session, City Attorney Greg Jacoby briefed the council members on the limitations and expectations of House Bill 1956, which was passed by the Washington Legislature this year.

Under the provisions of the statute, “If a religious or nonprofit organization chooses to sponsor a tent city on property controlled by the owner, the city must allow it,” Jacoby said. “You can’t come up with a lot of dubious reasons why they can’t obtain a permit.”

A city can only impose such regulations as it deems necessary to protect the health and safety of its residents — including those living in tents, Jacoby said.

The state law does not specify the limits of that loophole, however.

“Could we require that the tent city host provide showers and restroom facilities?” Councilman John Clauson asked. “We not be able to pass regulations preventing a tent city, but that doesn’t mean the city is required to provide sani-cans or shower facilities.”

“Showers aren’t necessarily a public health issue,” Councilman Fred Olin said.

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Clauson said.

“The law says you can’t pass frivolous regulations for the sole purpose of preventing someone from creating a tent city,” Jacoby said. “But it also gives a city the ability to protect its health and safety. Showers could be considered a health requirement.”

Councilman Jerry Childs addressed safety component by suggesting the host be required to perform background checks on those living in the tent city.

“We were promised background checks would be done,” he said. “Can we make that a requirement?”

Mayor Lary Coppola said he had spoken with officials from Kitsap County and the city of Bremerton about tent city ordinances and recommended that all of Kitsap’s governmental bodies establish uniform standards.

“What we don’t want is for the homeless to be shopping around for the best deal,” he said.

“This is where the (Kitsap County) Health District can really help us understand the law and how to develop a uniform code,” said James Weaver, Port Orchard Development Director.

“We should get Scott (Daniels, director of the Health District) to weigh in on this,” Clauson said.

“He’d just try to minimize it,” Coppola said.

Daniels is known to be a supporter of the tent city concept.

Since no one has passed a tent city ordinance yet, Coppola suggested Port Orchard could establish the precedent by being first.

“If someone else passed something we didn’t agree with, we’d be pressured to pass something similar,” he said. “Maybe we should set our own standards.”

Olin disagreed.

“No one’s even talking about putting a tent city here yet,” he said. “Why not sit back and watch what happens? Then we could learn from someone else’s mistakes.”

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