The Mountain View City Council passed a sweeping ban that would close off most streets in the city to oversized vehicles. The new ordinance was presented by city officials as a traffic safety measure, but the action was widely perceived as an effort to push the hundreds of people living out of RVs and trailers into the city’s industrial areas.
At its Tuesday, Sept. 24, meeting, the City Council threw its support behind the parking ban, but delayed its start date to June 2020 in order to provide more time to study its impacts. The ordinance was approved in a 4-3 vote, with council members Chris Clark, Alison Hicks and Lucas Ramirez voting no.
As written, the rules would close off about two-thirds of the city’s streets to oversized vehicles, estimated Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. She insisted the rules were needed to ensure traffic safety, and that homeless individuals would still have a place to go within the city limits.
“We don’t want to wait on doing something until after an accident happens. We want to be preventative,” Abe-Koga said. “If we have safe parking lots opening up and some streets still open, then I don’t see this as displacing that many folks.”
The new parking restrictions come as the most significant clampdown to date after nearly four years in which Mountain View city officials have struggled to address a surging homeless population. Since 2015, the number of homeless individuals in Mountain View has more than doubled, and several neighborhoods in the city have turned into de facto car campgrounds with people sleeping in vehicles.
The city’s new ordinance would curtail these encampments by restricting so-called oversized vehicles, defined as any auto or trailer more than 7 feet high, 7 feet wide or 22 feet long. City officials say they can create traffic hazards by obstructing street visibility when they park along the curbs.
In June, the City Council held off on approving a similar ordinance that would have banned oversized vehicles during the early morning hours from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. At the time, elected leaders wavered because they wanted to tailor a parking ban that would restrict parking in the city’s residential neighborhoods.
The ordinance that came back on Tuesday night was far more sweeping, but its full impact was less clear. The rules drafted by city staff were modified to prohibit oversized-vehicle parking for all hours of the day along roads with bike lanes, or streets that deemed too narrow because they are less than 40 feet in width.
According to the city’s prepared maps, this change would result in banning RV parking on dozens of miles of streets across Mountain View. The city maps indicated all of the city’s suburban neighborhoods, including Waverly Park, Cuesta Park and Old Mountain View, would be off-limits for large vehicle parking.
But city staffers warned that they still needed to survey each individual street to see which ones measured more than 40 feet wide. Mountain View Public Works officials say they designed the street maps using the city’s GIS database, but they could not explain to the Voice how this data was used. The city’s maps also did not indicate which streets already have restrictions, such as two-hour limits or no-parking rules.
Ahead of the meeting, a coalition of civil-rights attorneys warned they were ready to sue if the city went forward with the parking ban. In a letter sent to the council, groups including the ACLU and the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley argued city’s narrow streets rule was essentially the same thing as banning all parking citywide for large vehicles. They accused city officials of using traffic safety as a pretext to drive away the homeless without having to admit it.
“This proposed ordinance would leave virtually no space in the entire city of Mountain View for oversized vehicles to park,” said Law Foundation attorney Michael Trujillo. “We urge the City Council to heed the concerns of vehicle residents and move forward in a way that doesn’t involve unconstitutional parking restrictions.”
To their point, the attorneys noted the city did not provide any evidence that oversized vehicles were actually causing traffic hazards, especially along narrow streets. Traffic accidents have been on the rise throughout Mountain View, but police have not cited oversized vehicles as a contributing factor. Most accidents were the fault of distracted or speeding drivers, officers said.
The parking ban also prompted other warnings of consequences. Speaking in public comment, former Councilman Lenny Siegel pledged that the Housing Justice Coalition would work to overturn any city parking ban that tacitly discriminates against the homeless.
“This issue isn’t about safety. It’s about not wanting the blight of people in motor homes in Mountain View,” Siegel said. “We’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Siegel asked the audience who would support a future ballot measure to repeal a parking ban. About 80 people in the crowd raised their hands.
Several council members advocated for a gradual phase-in of the parking rules, particularly to give more time for safe parking lots to come online. These safe parking sites would be designated lots where people living out of their vehicles could stay for the night.
For years now, Mountain View political leaders have held off on stepping up enforcement of inhabited vehicles under the idea that the city needed to first provide some viable alternative. This wasn’t simply a matter of compassion -- recent federal case law has underscored that cities could not make it illegal to sleep on public property without providing some alternative, such as a shelter.
To that point, Councilwoman Alison Hicks urged her colleagues to be patient for a little longer and to adopt a gradual approach.
“We may be on the verge of positive solutions and I’d like to get the timing right,” Hicks said. “I would hate that with these positive steps forward, that we still miss the boat.”
Hicks, Ramirez and Clark urged the council to wait until next June when the city would consider whether to renew a shelter emergency passed earlier this year. If the shelter emergency was resolved, then it made sense to begin parking enforcement, they said.
Going that route would mean “kicking the can” once again on an issue that the city has dithered on for years, Abe-Koga said. She insisted the council needed to tie the ban to a specific date.
“Let’s motivate people to take action now,” she said. “If there’s no sense of urgency, then I don’t know if there’s going to be any buy-in.”
The swing vote of the night was Councilwoman Ellen Kamei, who initially supported postponing the oversized vehicle ban to June 2020, and tying it to the shelter crisis. She switched her support after Councilman John McAlister made a substitute motion to make the shelter crisis irrelevant to the parking ban.