Opinion

Tent cities defy normal zoning regs

By enacting Chapter 175 of the Washington laws of 2010, our Legislature recognized that the free exercise of religion may include providing temporary shelter to the homeless.

This new law makes it less likely that a local rule could be adopted to discourage a religious organization that intends to help the homeless.

Apparently, the legislators were aware of the objections raised when proposals for “tent cities” or other temporary shelters were made by religious organizations.

If so, the possible consequence of this new law may not deserve to be called an unintended consequence.

The laudable goal of enabling religious organizations to help the poor may clash with the expectations of people regarding the quiet enjoyment of their own homes if they live near a proposed “temporary encampment.”

A resident in an area zoned for “urban low-density residential” development in the unincorporated areas of Kitsap County may expect that most land uses would be as described for that zoning — four to nine dwelling units per acre.

Zoning restrictions often exist to ensure that people wanting to live in a certain type of neighborhood can choose a residential location that suits them.

Changes in zoning can occur with the passage of time, but at least the people residing in the area have an opportunity to state their opinions before a change is implemented.

This new law about providing shelter for the homeless doesn’t seem to fit well with the idea that zoning laws strongly influence the nature of developments in an area.

Any religious organization wanting to put a “temporary encampment” for the homeless on property owned by the organization may find it easier to accomplish.

The governments of Port Orchard and Kitsap County may adopt ordinances to protect the “health and safety” of citizens, but may not adopt measures that place undue burdens on the decisions about the locations of these temporary encampments.

Assuming the same restrictions on city and county laws apply to land leased by a religious organization for the purpose of an encampment as apply to land owned by the organization, the homeless encampments might go almost anywhere.

This assumption is needed in the absence of an authoritative construction of the law, since the freedom to put encampments on land “owned or controlled by the religious organization” is stated in one part of the law while the limits on ordinances in other sections refer only to land “owned by the religious organization.”

If ordinances are limited to those that protect citizens’ health and safety for land owned by a religious organization, perhaps the Legislature intended that the same limits apply to land leased by a religious organization.

Or maybe not, since a site that is nowhere near an existing religious organization’s land could be leased — thereby introducing an encampment for the homeless in a neighborhood where people have no idea such a thing would occur.

But for the sake of discussion, assume the same rule applies to both situations — only the “health and safety of its citizens” can be considered when adopting ordinances to regulate the placement of homeless encampments.

Some regulations come immediately to mind that would protect health and safety, such as standards to ensure the safe and sanitary habitability of the temporary shelters.

The safety of residents in the encampment and the neighborhood might also justify a rule requiring background checks of prospective occupants to avoid unknowingly putting disreputable people alongside vulnerable residents.

But rules that are typical in zoning and growth management matters don’t all seem to fit within the idea of protecting the health and safety of citizens.

Citizens’ quiet enjoyment of their own homes is ordinarily a factor in zoning decisions.

Some people don’t mind living in a more densely developed area or an area of mixed uses and perhaps a little more background noise.

Zoning usually allows some predictability about such things, but where is that predictability in allowing religious organizations to place temporary encampments for the homeless wherever they don’t endanger health and safety?

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