The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has moved a step closer to limiting camping in public spaces during daytime hours after unanimously approving the first reading of an ordinance that would do just that.

During the board’s April 4 meeting, Chair Chris Coursey acknowledged that the ordinance could have an effect on people experiencing homelessness.

“We recognize the fundamental right to have a place to sleep if you have nowhere else to go,” said Coursey in a statement released by the county. “At the same time, we need to balance the needs of the unhoused with the health and safety concerns that these prolonged, unsanctioned encampments create for unhoused individuals and their impacts on the wider community.”

The county said that the ordinance would move it into compliance with recent legal decisions concerning overnight camping “while still providing the county options to discourage permanent housing encampments, prevent garbage buildup and address public health issues.”

A time and a place

At root of the legal discussions around laws that dictate where and when an unsheltered person can set up camp or sleep is the 2018 Martin v. Boise case that was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which essentially said a city cannot criminalize or penalize people for living in certain public spaces if they have nowhere else to go and are not given alternative shelter options.

However, according to the county, Martin v. Boise does allow for certain restrictions on where unsheltered people can inhabit.

The county can dictate certain times that areas can be occupied; in this case, Sonoma County is proposing prohibiting camping on public property between the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

YouTube video
A cyclist documents homeless encampments along the Joe Rodota Trail in January 2023, prior to the tents being removed in March. (Car Tats/YouTube)

“By doing so, this would bring the ordinance in line with Martin v City of Boise by recognizing the fundamental right for unsheltered individuals to sleep, while maintaining the County’s ability to prohibit prolonged occupations of public property, large accumulation of items and debris, and the establishment of large encampments,” reads the summary report given to supervisors from county counsel.

The county said it can also impose a complete prohibition on camping on or near certain types of properties that are “particularly sensitive,” such as inside public buildings or within 25 feet of their entrance, within 50 feet of a residence, within 100 feet of a daycare, playground, school or other licensed childcare facility, within any county park, within any public highway, road or street, or anywhere that might obstruct the free passage of persons, bikes or vehicles.

The restrictions also apply to very high fire severity zones, places within 150 feet of the high water mark of the waters within the state or areas designated as regulatory floodways by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and within 25 feet of a facility that provides shelter, safe sleeping or safe parking to homeless people.

‘Compliance, not punishment’

According to the draft ordinance, those who violate the law would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

“Except where other penalties are specified, each offense may be punished by a fine of not less than one hundred dollars ($100.00) nor more than five hundred dollars ($500.00), or by the imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed sixty (60) days, or by both such fine and imprisonment,” reads the ordinance.

County spokesperson Matt Brown said that law enforcement would most likely issue warnings for first time offenders, however.

“The goal is compliance, not punishment,” Brown said in an email.

A county-sanctioned encampment was recently set up on the property of the Sonoma County offices after a shelter crisis was declared on Feb. 21.

On March 23, an encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail was cleared and 90 people were offered space at the new county-sponsored encampment.

There are currently 70 people living at the new encampment, the county said, and 20 people declined to accept the shelter.

The proposed ordinance will return to the Board of Supervisors on April 18 for a second vote to adopt the regulations.

Katy St. Clair, Bay City News

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.