Property Manager Doug Lemon regularly spots cars left sitting along public roadways for stretches of time.
At times, the pileup of cars makes it difficult for his renters to navigate back to their homes, Lemon said, though he also has prided himself on keeping on top of things by calling parking enforcement officers with Yakima’s Utility Services Division.
Lemon, who has 48 years of experience with property management, was one of two community members who spoke up about abandoned cars at a Tuesday City Council meeting, prior to a council discussion on the issue.
“Many residents of Yakima are hoarding cars, parking them not only in the streets but in their yards, making a huge eyesore for whole neighborhoods,” he said. “I am asking that you review the city ordinance and revise it to better deal with the overflow of abandoned, unlicensed junk cars that are flooding our city.”
Through two separate votes, the City Council directed staff to revise the code to make the rules more clear and to draft a new ordinance prohibiting the abandonment of unlicensed vehicles on roadways.
Brooke Goosman, a senior assistant city attorney, defined an unauthorized vehicle generally as any vehicle “parked or left standing too long where it should not be.” Goosman noted the definition of “vehicles” includes motor homes, campers and trailers.
Vehicles immediately become “unauthorized” when they are impeding the flow of traffic or entry into a driveway, pose a danger to public safety, are stolen, or are parked in marked loading or construction zones or handicapped spots without proper tags.
Under the city’s municipal code, a vehicle also becomes unauthorized after it is parked on a highway or in a public place for more than 24 hours. Parking enforcement agents are then permitted to tag the vehicle. After an additional 48 hours have passed, they then can impound the vehicle if it has not been removed “substantially” from the location, according to the municipal code.
Tuesday’s council discussion revolved mostly around vehicle owners leaving their cars for long periods on public streets.
Goosman said parking enforcement officers and citizens have concerns about the code. What constitutes a “substantial” move — an inch? 10 feet? a block? — is not defined in the code. The 24-hour rule means that residents who park their cars on the street and leave for weeklong vacations could come back to find their cars impounded.
Goosman asked the council to consider whether RVs, campers and other recreational vehicles should have separate requirements. She also asked the council to consider whether unlicensed vehicles should be allowed to park on a road for more than 24 hours, noting that no ordinance prohibits the practice.
Goosman noted that various nearby cities have different requirements for how many days a vehicle can remain in the same spot and how far the city requires the vehicle to move.
Most vehicles in Olympia, for example, must be moved every five days, but recreational vehicles can’t park on public roadways for more than 24 hours. Spokane requires most vehicles to move at least once every 72 hours, but also mandates that recreational vehicles can’t be parked for more than 24 hours. Tacoma allows all vehicles to remain on the roadway for up to seven days before being moved.
Olympia and Tacoma don’t specify how far owners have to move the vehicles, whereas Spokane specifies the vehicles have to move at least one block, she added.
Councilman Brad Hill questioned why unlicensed vehicles would be allowed on public roads for any length of time. He requested that staff prepare an ordinance resembling one adopted by the town of Coulee Dam that prohibits unlicensed vehicles from remaining on streets for more than 24 hours. His motion passed unanimously.
Hill also questioned whether changing the ordinance to say owners had to move their cars at least a block would resolve the situation. He said he was in favor of more stringent rules.
“It seems like the way our ordinance is written, we’re just making it someone else’s problem,” Hill said.
Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez noted that requiring vehicle owners to move their vehicles at least a block could have some benefit, including easing tension between neighbors, helping with traffic flow, or reminding the owner that the vehicle was a nuisance and was bothering people.
She agreed that the word “substantial” needs further clarification and requested staff to work on the definition. Gutierrez’s motion passed on a 4-3 vote, with Hill, Jason White and Kathy Coffey voting against.
Lemon, in a follow-up interview, said the problem of junked, abandoned and unlicensed vehicles on streets has worsened in recent years. He has more than 900 photos of parked cars with expired license plates that the city had not addressed. He said the problem was two-pronged: difficult-to-understand regulations and a lack of enforcement.
Lemon said part of the problem is enforcement of the city code that already exists.
“Sometimes the parking guys do tag it, but then there’s no follow through,” he said. “If word got out that they were being strict, it wouldn’t be such a problem.”
Yakima spokesman Randy Beehler said the city has two parking enforcement officers who are expected to cover 28 square miles of the city.
“They keep notes on which vehicles have been tagged,” Beehler said. “But as for concerns about whether they don’t go back, we can understand the frustration of people because that may be a reality.”
Beehler said the city also has operated with only a single parking enforcement officer in years prior. The decision is tied to funding, he said.
The officers do enforce the ordinance, Beehler said. In the last two months, they’ve checked and followed up on 484 vehicles left on city streets. They’ve placed impound notices on 333 vehicles. And 50 vehicles have been towed, Beehler said.
Enforcing the parking ordinance is more than a matter of the limited number of officers who enforce the ordinance, Beehler added.
“There is vagueness under the ordinance that hamstrings them,” Beehler said. “The challenge we face with enforcement is what constitutes a ‘substantial’ move. If an officer tells someone to move a vehicle, and the person moves the vehicle 20 feet, technically, they’ve moved it. But is that enough?”
Beehler said the City Council’s decision to review the code should help parking enforcement officers and vehicle owners.
The matter of people hoarding multiple cars, and junk cars, within their own yards is a completely separate issue, handled by the city’s code enforcement officers, Beehler noted. Parking enforcement officers are only concerned with parking violations that extend into public rights of way, he said.
Editorial Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Doug Lemon is a property manager in Yakima.