PACIFIC COUNTY — Authorities here are taking a different tack than many other places along the West Coast to handle increasingly full RV parks.
With more people moving into wheeled homes year-round as an alternative to rising rents and home prices across the region, many cities, including Seattle and Portland, are effectively pushing RV dwellers out.
Pacific County is trying another approach.
Department of Community Development Director Tim Crose said anytime a campground has full-time residents, there are bound to be problems. So he’s directed county staff to inspect RV parks more often in an effort to make sure the properties meet safety standards and eliminate health hazards.
Code enforcement officer Tammy Engel said in the past, inspectors were supposed to knock on the property manager’s door with their clipboards ready at 9 a.m.
Now, she said, she’s doing away with the gotcha-style checks, instead offering to work with owners to clean up eyesores and eliminate problems.
Records show the county handled almost 150 cases involving code violations this year. While voluntary compliance is the goal, the county is also enforcing the rules, targeting the owners of RV parks and other unkempt properties who have a history of failing to fix problems.
“We’re not unreasonable,” Engel said. “We know people don’t have a lot of time or money.”
Priced out of the American dream
Trailer parks are big business, with more than 20 million people living in them nationwide, according to U.S. Census data. In 2015, the average cost of a house was $360,600 versus $68,000 for a mobile home. Used travel trailers and motorhomes are often even less expensive, making them an affordable alternative.
Wheeled-home options are growing in popularity across the Pacific Northwest, where almost two-thirds of the population can’t afford a median-priced home, according to federal statistics. Tiny living is trendy and it offers some a way out of homelessness.
In Pacific County, nearly 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, versus almost 14 percent nationwide.
The median household income was about $37,684 in 2015, compared to $55,775 across the country. The county’s median cost for a home mortgage was $1,092 a month, versus $703 for rent.
People in the area are also older, with a median age of 51, compared to 37 across the country. The average age of a mobile-home resident is 50, and almost 35 percent are 60 or older.
Hefty fines for hazards
With more people choosing the RV lifestyle, Engel, the county’s only code enforcement officer, has her work cut out.
As she drove up to Mauch’s Sundown RV Park in Chinook for a check on May 31, she could smell the stench. Pools of sewage and piles of trash were contaminating the campground along U.S. 101, just north of the Astoria-Megler Bridge, she said.
Engel also found inadequate restrooms, abandoned vehicles, junk that hadn’t been removed and a bridge that remained in disrepair, all despite previous warnings.
“We’d been putting up with this for a long time,” she said. “Sewage on the ground has been a major problem.”
After years of warnings, a South Pacific District Court judge in October ordered Mauch’s former owner Weldon Pior to pay $9,142 in penalties for a handful of code violations.
“It’s probably the biggest fine we’ve ever levied,” Crose said.
Dangling the carrot
Although the county is trying to work with property owners to get them to follow the rules without saddling them penalties for violations, he said, about half a dozen cases have ended up in court.
“We like the carrot before the stick,” Crose said. “But we’ll use the stick if we have to.”
Mauch’s is now a thing of the past. Preston and Theresa Devers, of Tacoma, bought the 4.35-acre property in August and opened the Bridge RV Park. Engel said the county has been working with the couple to resolve remaining issues on the grounds.
“We’re very hopeful they’ll do a great job,” she said.
Ditching clunkers can be costly
Engel is also dealing with an influx of junk cars and rusted RVs being dumped on county property. There is no money to get rid of them.
Clunkers were recently left in the middle of Stringtown and Chinook Valley roads, she said.
The one on Stringtown Road was removed along with the barrier the county put around the vehicle after tagging it with a 24-hour warning sticker, Engel said.
A tow truck was called to move the other. But because there’s no money in impounding unwanted junk, it was pushed off to the side of the road where it remains, filled with trash and old tires, Engel said.
The county this year started enforcing fines for illegally dumping vehicles. The registered owner of a ditched ride now faces a $1,044 ticket. The penalty can be increased for each day the vehicle remains, parked illegally. If it’s towed, fees and impound charges also rack up quickly.
“Moral of the story: Don’t dump your car on county property,” Engel said.
Complaints about eyesore lots are also piling up. Neighbors have been griping about a deteriorating trailer house surrounded by clunker cars and ramshackle RVs on Sandridge Road for years, Engel said. But the county hasn’t been able to get the owners to clean up the Long Beach property.
It has had success with another often complained about site known as “Cox’s corner” in Ocean Park. The owner has worked to clean up junk that was piled behind a red-and-white fence on N Street just north of 295th Street, Engel said.
Enforcement eats up savings
Because state lawmakers adjourned a record 193-day legislative session in July without approving a two-year capital budget, the county has been reaching into its reserves to pay for code enforcement. If the money doesn’t come soon, Crose said, he’ll have to halt the headway his staff has been making to clean up the county.