Before dawn this morning, City of Olympia Public Works employees and their vehicles, including two bulldozers, and multiple Olympia Police Department officers rolled onto Ensign Road south of St. Peter Hospital, lights flashing, and barricaded it from Martin Way to the hospital entrance.
City employees then went door-to-door to tell the residents of vehicles parked along the roadway that while they didn’t have to move today, if they didn’t, they would be ticketed.
“This is just pure intimidation,” said Tyler Gundel, of Just Housing, which advocates alongside the residents of vehicles parked along Ensign Road. “They are very clearly trying to play on people’s fears.”
The action came less than 24 hours after the city received a letter from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Office saying the city’s plan to evict residents living in vehicles along Ensign Road is a likely violation of the state’s eviction moratorium, put in place due to economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is nothing short of the city throwing a temper tantrum because they didn’t get their way,” Gundel said Tuesday morning as she waited outside the barricade with several residents.
“The city does not throw temper tantrums,” retorted Kellie Braseth, the city of Olympia’s strategic communications director. She said the city had been clear with residents all along about what was to happen. “The only difference in the plan is that we are not compelling people to leave,” she said.
“This was the first we heard about the ticketing,” said Deborah, who resides in a vehicle parked on Ensign Road. “No one told us this was going to happen.” She said residents also were not notified that the area would be barricaded.
Tuesday morning, residents were receiving conflicting information about if or when they would be ticketed. The city has said for weeks that the area would be off limits to parking for everyone, but that was before the AG’s Office letter about the potential for a violation of the eviction moratorium if the residents were made to leave. Just Housing is seeking clarification.
Braseth made no mention of plans to ticket the residents in a statement to The Tribune on Monday. “For now, we will be adjusting our approach to the Ensign Road encampment. Because we still have serious concerns for public safety and health and continue to believe Ensign Road is not a safe place for people to live, we will work toward a voluntary cleanup along the roadway tomorrow and encourage the campers to move. They will not be compelled. We will be providing gas cards and limited vehicle repairs for those willing to leave.”
Public Works slapped up no parking signs between 9 and 10 a.m. and put full-color fliers on vehicles parked in the area that said the road would be closed to parking beginning Oct. 27 due to public health and safety concerns and so the “city can perform a major cleanup … and so that the city can access the area for snow removal and wetlands preservation.”
The city has not answered repeated questions about whether it has notified the state Department of Ecology and the Thurston County Health Department about the wetland and public health concerns it continues to cite as a reason for asking the residents to leave.
About 15 residents and their vehicles have left Ensign Road since being notified on October 20 that they would have to move today. Some have lived there since March and residents and advocates have expressed deep concerns about where they would go, given that no long-term RV parking is allowed in public places in the area.
Tuesday morning, City Public Works employees and Olympia police officers were stationed at both ends of Ensign Road. Public works employees said they had been instructed not to let people onto the site, but could cite no legal reason for excluding people from the entire area, which was marked only with “Road Closed” signs.
The roadway that was blocked is the same segment the city says is critical to the timely passage of ambulances to St. Peter Hospital. The road was closed from before dawn until about 10 a.m.
“The City has blocked the road to secure the work area so the cleanup can be done safely. We have City personnel working in there and heavy equipment operating. Letting traffic and unauthorized people travel through the work area is dangerous. Someone could get hurt,” Braseth said. Two bulldozers were the only heavy equipment on site and they left about 9:30 without being used.
Meanwhile, work continues between the city and Thurston County to find safe and legal parking for those who live in RVs.
“We continue to work to develop a safe alternative for car campers. At this point, we haven’t identified what that will be, Stahley said in an email to council members Monday. He said the city has “reached out to the County and asked for their assistance. We are hopeful that they will partner with us on an appropriate response.”
Meetings were underway Tuesday on a solution. Late Tuesday, Thurston County Commissioner Tye Menser announced on Facebook that County Commissioners committed $530,000 toward working with the City on a measure to address the RVs parked on Deschutes Parkway and Ensign Road.
Gundel said the next step is for the city, other jurisdictions and residents to spend time working on a safe parking solution “so we don’t have to go through this again. It opens up the doors for a win-win solution, Gundel said. “It is important to include residents in these discussions immediately.”