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Yuba County native Allen Holcomb (right) along with other individuals experiencing homelessness who are currently staying at one of two respite sites just outside of Marysville where they are allowed to camp temporarily.

Yuba County supervisors approved an urgency ordinance this week that lays out where camping and storage of personal property is prohibited in the unincorporated parts of the county.

Officials say the ordinance provides another tool for enforcement, particularly in the Yuba-Sutter area’s river bottoms where some encampments pose risks to levee safety and large amounts of debris threaten to pollute waterways during high water events.

“We as a county are not going to tolerate the destruction of all of our hard work. These people are destroying half a billion dollars’ worth of levees, and we have to stop it for the sake of public safety,” said Supervisor Andy Vasquez. “We have to take pride in our community. This ordinance is not for any particular resident, it’s for the entire population within the county who have spent their money and worked hard to make the county a better place to live.”

The Yuba County Board of Supervisors unanimously supported the urgency ordinance, which went into effect immediately after it was approved at Tuesday’s meeting. Code Enforcement Manager Jeremy Strang said the ordinance not only puts into place reasonable regulations for dispersed camping and personal property storage, it provides his department, as well as the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office, with some teeth when it comes to cleaning up public places that are experiencing blight.

The county airport has run into some issues with unauthorized campers staying or storing personal belongings in an area that is prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration. Another big push for the ordinance was to clean up public land in the river bottoms area, where scattered homeless encampments have popped up over the years and along area levees where degradation caused by human activity has been reported.

“Because regional reservoirs can cause sudden and quick-moving changes in water elevation, proactive enforcement of this ordinance will facilitate the relocation of individuals that have established camps within our waterways,” Strang said. “This type of proactive enforcement will also provide an additional layer of safety for our first responders, who put their lives in harm’s way to evacuate from or perform rescues in encampments dangerously situated within our waterways.”

Legality

Allen Holcomb, a Yuba County resident who has been homeless for a little over two years, questioned the legality of the ordinance, saying courts have given rights to homeless individuals over the years to prevent them from being punished for not having somewhere to live.

“I don’t believe the ordinance is going to solve the issue. Being homeless is hard and not something many of us want to be experiencing,” Holcomb said.

Jurisdictions across the West Coast have been reluctant to establish such ordinances prohibiting camping since 2018 after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that homeless individuals cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.

Yuba County Counsel Michael Ciccozzi said the main distinction from the federal court’s ruling is that the local ordinance is not based on a person’s status and that the restrictions it establishes regulate camping and storage of personal property by limiting the times and places such activities may occur, as opposed to prohibiting camping in any public place at any time.

“Our ordinance does not go that far, but rather designates certain public areas (and all private property absent the owner’s consent) where the activities of camping and storage of personal property may not occur,” Ciccozzi said.

He said the federal court’s ruling does not suggest that jurisdictions with insufficient shelter can never criminalize the act of sleeping outside. Another legal precedent that backs Yuba County’s ordinance, he said, is the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold an ordinance in 1995 banning camping and the storage of personal property in public areas in the city of Santa Ana. The Supreme Court has been petitioned to look at the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision to clear up some of the confusion many jurisdictions are dealing with since the ruling.

“Our goal is not to punish anyone, but rather to protect the public health and safety by regulating activities that can be injurious to the health and welfare of all members of the community,” Ciccozzi said.

Enforcement

Strang said the ordinance establishes a level of consistency when it comes to enforcement by implementing notice requirements and an informal hearing process. His office will provide individuals in violation of the ordinance at least 48-hour notice before any enforcement actions are taken.

The informal hearing process also allows the individual whose property has been seized to appeal the decision with a sheriff’s deputy or Code Enforcement officer within 90 days before the property is destroyed or disposed of. While there are some fees associated with moving and storage of the property, the owner of the property does have the ability to apply for a fee waiver. 

“I think this is an important step to adding one more tool to make sure everybody is safe from certain things like health and safety issues and other issues that can occur along our levees,” Strang said.

Now that Yuba County has taken action, its counterpart across the river is considering a similar ordinance.

“Sutter County has a draft ordinance planned to appear on next Tuesday’s agenda,” said Sutter County Public Information Officer Chuck Smith. “The ordinance was drafted with the intention that Yuba and Sutter counties, and the cities within each county, would have the same rules regarding activity on public property.”

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