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Behavioral issues, not RVs, concern Bellingham leaders

Council pulled plans for more RV parking code restrictions — for now

RVs park on Moore Street in Bellingham
RVs park on Moore Street in Bellingham
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

Bellingham leadership is rethinking a proposal to make recreational vehicle parking more restrictive amid growing complaints about encampments near youth facilities in city limits.

The change in code, introduced by Mayor Seth Fleetwood during a July 24 Bellingham City Council meeting, sought to prohibit RV parking within 1,000 feet of the perimeter of schools, playgrounds, recreational facilities, public parks, libraries and public transit centers, among other locations. 

At a Monday, Aug. 14 meeting, city council opted to send the proposal back to city staff for further review, citing concerns about the restrictions and enforcement in a 1,000-foot perimeter — particularly in a community where green space and public parks are a high priority.

“A distance rule makes sense,” council president Michael Lilliquist said. “One thousand feet seems excessive.”

The proposal was spurred by complaints from residents and employees at local youth centers, including leaders at Bellingham’s Boys & Girls Club. Fleetwood told council members the facilities were struggling with “poor behaviors and negative impacts associated with persons living in recreational vehicles on public roads.” 

Neighbors were concerned about drug use and public urination, particularly around school grounds and around children.

Those concerns, though, aren’t a reflection of every RV resident in Bellingham, council members agreed Monday. The problem, they said, isn’t RV parking, but rather erratic behavioral issues and drug addiction.

“It’s not that we’re afraid of RVs or against RVs in principle; we’re not trying to ban RVs from our city,” Lilliquist told Fleetwood and other city leadership during the council’s Committee of the Whole meeting. “We’re really worried about certain impacts in certain locations on certain vulnerable younger members of our community, and right now, I don’t think the proposed solution gets at that problem.” 

The city already has enforcement codes related to RV parking, though the language in the code is less specific, and only applies to vehicles on public streets above a certain width. 

“There’s a prohibition on parking vehicles wider than 80 inches … on any city street,” Bellingham Public Works Director Eric Johnston said. “My Suburban — I talk about my Suburban a lot — is 79 inches wide. A friend’s Ford Expedition is 72 inches wide, and classic RVs are at least 90 to 94 inches wide.”

The only exception to that rule comes in manufacturing and industrial-zoned areas in the city, where wider vehicles are allowed to park — including the streets where the Bellingham Boys & Girls Club is located. 

Council members want options to tackle behavioral health, rather than street parking.

“From the discussions I’ve had, it’s the behavior of some folks that is a problem, per se, not that they’re parking a vehicle,” council member Skip Williams said during the discussion. “There are people who actually park somewhere, they follow the rules, they’re not a nuisance to the community, and every 72 hours, they pick up and go somewhere else.” 

Council members also noted that more people are forced into RVs as the cost of housing in the local market skyrockets. 

In the meantime, Fleetwood expressed hope for the creation of a safe parking program, which would create a managed space for individuals who reside in vehicles — not just RVs — to park without risk of being towed. 

“We’ve put in substantial effort in trying to identify locations and also consideration of operators,” Fleetwood said on July 24. “I know interest in creating a safe parking program is something that has been on the minds of a number of us.” 

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