The city of Mountain View is asking a judge to throw out a legal challenge against its RV parking ban, arguing that the forthcoming parking restrictions are not a ploy to banish low-income residents living in vehicles along most public streets.
Legal advocates filed a lawsuit last month alleging that the city's parking ban, also known as the narrow streets ordinance, is designed to oust homeless people who have taken shelter in RVs and other oversized vehicles. Lawyers for the group called the parking bans both unconstitutional and morally wrong, saying that it threatens the health and wellbeing of people who have been displaced by the local housing crisis.
The controversial ordinance prevents large vehicles from parking on city streets that are 40 feet wide or less, which accounts for 83% of all streets in the Mountain View. The lawsuit also seeks to overturn a similar ordinance affecting streets with bike lanes that went into effect last year.
The city fired its opening salvo in the court battle last week, requesting that the district court judge dismiss all of the alleged violations. Defense attorneys made the case that the parking ban does not target low-income residents and is focused solely on traffic safety, and that the city has done more than its fair share to support those who are living in vehicles for lack of stable housing.
"What the plaintiffs' complaint makes clear is that the real purpose of this litigation is to secure a right to indefinitely locate their oversized vehicles on their preferred roadways, regardless of any dangers this may pose to other vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists in their vicinity," attorney Margaret Prinzing wrote in the motion.
The Mountain View City Council originally passed the parking restrictions in September 2019 following years of debate over what to do about the growing homeless population living in vehicles parked along public roadways. At its height, as many as 299 vehicles were thought to be used as makeshift homes, more than two-thirds of which were RVs.
The council approved both ordinances in September 2019, but the narrow streets ordinance was immediately subject to a referendum. It eventually came before voters as Measure C in November 2020, when it passed with nearly 57% of the vote. The plan was to begin enforcing the law in April, but the city has only started installing signs last week.
The city's defense argues that the ordinances do not limit parking to the extent described in the lawsuit, and that plenty of vehicle dwellers are living in cars and vans that would not fall under the prohibition. The defense also points out that 11% of the city's roadways are wider than 40 feet and do not have bike lanes, giving them about 54 streets that would allow them to stay in Mountain View. The motion says that the ordinances are even-handed, and sought to dispel the idea that the parking restrictions would have a heavier impact on low-income residents.
"The ordinances simply cannot be said to target low-income people. They target oversized vehicles," according to the court filing.
The crux of the city's argument is that the pair of ordinances were passed in the name of public safety, specifically the need to protect drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians on streets where vision and movement is impaired by large vehicles parked on the side of the road. It denies that the restrictions were passed for the purpose of moving homeless people off of residential streets, and that staff reports repeatedly described safety concerns as the justification.
The staff reports themselves do not cite traffic safety data to justify the new laws, but instead refer to complaints from the public of reduced bicycle safety, crowded streets and limited parking. The complaints also included general concerns about vehicle dwellers too, specifically garbage, leaking sewage and noise from generators. The lawsuit claims the city never truly analyzed whether the oversized vehicles actually constituted a public safety concern, which the city dismissed as both wrong and irrelevant to the case.
"The community caretaking doctrine does not demand an inquiry into the adequacy of the legislative process leading up to the law in question. It just demands an evaluation of the facts on the ground," according to the city's court filing. "If an oversized vehicle is parked in a bike lane, and bicyclists are forced to swerve into a traffic lane to pass the oversized vehicle, public safety may well be at risk, regardless of whether the City Council considered data that conclusively proved that possibility before it passed the Ordinances in 2019."
Though the legal defense seeks to create distance between the RV parking restrictions and the growing homeless crisis in Mountain View, the lead-up to the ordinances make clear that the two issues are deeply intertwined. City officials repeatedly referred to its homelessness response as a multipronged approach, offering a boost in social services, creating safe parking sites and eventually enforcing parking restrictions to remove inhabited vehicles from problematic streets.
The city's own legal staff conceded that passing such a parking ordinance could be challenging, and that a growing number of court rulings have limited the extent to which a city can prohibit living and sleeping in vehicles. Recent verdicts have found that it is illegal to prosecute the homeless for living on public property when alternatives like shelter space are in such short supply.
The city was arguably legislating on thin ice, with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sending a letter warning that such ordinances would be subject to legal challenge. Both groups have since banded together to file the lawsuit last month.
Though the city's defense teases apart the issue of traffic safety from homelessness, the motion still makes the case that the city is compassionate and does care about the needs of the homeless residents living in vehicles. It points to the city's large safe parking program, homeless prevention and rental assistance services, as well as upwards of $28 million invested by Mountain View in housing for those who are homeless or at imminent risk of losing their home.
Despite those efforts, the lawsuit claims that vehicle residents in Mountain View are living in "constant fear" that the city's heavy-handed enforcement will soon deprive them of their homes, causing stress and anxiety for families with children who will be unable to pay for the high cost of retrieving an impounded vehicle. The total capacity of the city's safe parking program falls short when it comes to the number of inhabited vehicles in the city, and it can be difficult for vehicle dwellers to meet all the requirements to be accepted into one of the safe parking lots.
The city disputes that the enforcement policies are unfair, and said that those living in oversized vehicles have been given plenty of warning about when the law will take effect and which streets will soon be off limits. It also argues that a $65 parking ticket for violating the ordinance is not excessive, and that towing costs -- however exorbitant they may be -- are simply administrative costs that cannot be assessed as a punitive fine.
"These costs represent the costs incurred to remove an illegally parked vehicle. Passing on those costs to the individual responsible for them is remedial in nature and not an excessive fine," according to the motion.
City officials have yet to give a firm date on when the narrow streets ordinance will take effect, and whether the lawsuit has changed the schedule. Enforcement of the ordinance hinges on the installation of thousands of "no parking" signs, at an estimated cost of $980,000. They will be first installed north of Central Expressway and West of Shoreline Boulevard, an area roughly encompassing the Monta Loma and Rex Manor neighborhoods.