Thursday, August 21, 2008

Welcome to Camp Santa Barbara

Camping is usually a get-away-from-it-all natural experience of sleeping under the stars, getting close to nature and enjoying stories told around the campfire. It’s not the cheap vacation it once was: A campsite in any California State park runs at least $25 per night, still a terrific bargain compared to a site at a private campground.

But in Santa Barbara, in certain neighborhoods, urban camping has taken hold. And in the land of off-the-charts housing prices, high rents and pricey lodging, RV parking is unaccountably free — no need for reservation hassles, minimum stays, bed taxes or check-out times. Come as you are, stay as long as you like; just move your vehicle every 72 hours and the city is yours to enjoy.
Officially, there is no legal vehicle camping in Santa Barbara, with the exception of the New Beginnings Counseling Center’s Safe Parking Program — 55 overnight spaces located in parking lots of churches, municipal buildings and nonprofit organizations. Currently there’s a waiting list of at least 15.
In practice however, an RV, a converted van, a large truck or other such vehicle may be parked legally on city streets where it’s not posted otherwise for 72 hours. While staying in it — camping — is technically illegal, enforcement is spotty at best, and typically complaint driven in tolerant Santa Barbara. Additionally, any citation is required to be handed to the individual violator, not the vehicle itself. A door unanswered at three in the morning, for example, is not likely to be challenged.
Until a couple of months ago, one of the favored camping areas in town combined the best of the natural world with the urban environment. The streets around Alameda Park and Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens were lined with RVs in various states of repair, to the consternation of onlookers who raised enough of a fuss that it came to the attention of the city’s Transportation Engineer. Empowered by the Municipal Code “to appropriately sign or mark any place where he determines that it is necessary in order to eliminate dangerous traffic hazards,” he ordered the installation of signs that read, “No RV Parking This Block.”
Among the Transportation Engineer’s considerations for making the determination of traffic hazards are: visual obstacles that reduce sight lines; reduced sidewalk and street safety; the height and width of the vehicles that may interfere with traffic flow; dangers posed to cyclists; the amount of gasoline and propane contained within an RV; the negative impact on the livability of the community and the neighborhood’s comfort.
On the Upper Eastside-adjacent neighborhood surrounding those destination parks, those considerations resulted in signage and banning RVs from parking there anytime. But on the less tony streets near Santa Barbara Junior High School and the old National Guard buildings, the same findings have not been made. The result is a couple of dozen RVs, old vans and trucks parked there regularly on streets less visible, less traveled, but no less intimidating to the local neighborhood. Battered and barely road-worthy, these homes on wheels serve as full-time curbside housing for uncounted numbers of people down on their luck or simply choosing an alternative way of living. In combination, their aesthetic has a profoundly negative affect on the surrounding area that now looks like a 1930’s Hooverville; it hardly resembles the modern-day, so-called America’s Riviera.
Interestingly, the other neighborhood in Santa Barbara where RV parking is expressly prohibited is south of the freeway, between Castillo and the Bird Refuge. Although historically, transient populations have been long tolerated here, and one might expect RV parking to be allowed—today large signs announce, “No RV Parking This Neighborhood 12 A.M. to 6 A.M.,” and cite Santa Barbara Municipal Code 10.44.200C.
The effect of this beachfront restricted area seems to have literally driven the RV population away from the scrutiny of tourists and luxury condo owners into the middle class neighborhoods above the freeway. And increasingly, nearby residents worry that their neighborhood will be next. Next to suffer the crowding, noise, feelings of insecurity, safety concerns, and sense of intrusion that an invasion of RVs brings with it.
Lost in our collective compassion for the RV dwellers is any care or concern for those who live in homes and see the quality of their lives rapidly slipping away—but aren’t supposed to admit it.
The fact is, the presence of an RV parked at the curb for three days at a time, with someone inside is upsetting, even when it’s a state-of-the-art, self-contained vehicle. Like so many other recent local developments, the RV parked at the curb with increasing frequency is out of size, bulk and scale in the neighborhood, and frankly, it just doesn’t belong.
It’s like an instant apartment building plunked down within a few feet of the house, complete with new neighbors who never bother to introduce themselves and then take off—often leaving messes behind.
Next campaign season, when council and mayoral candidates want to sing “Kumbaya” with neighborhood residents, they’ll soon realize what current policies have created—on this issue there are not many voters who are happy campers.

Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her at


Anonymous said...

Cheri most of the time I tend to agree with you but sometimes we have to realize that the RV parked and the resident inside may very well be a good person down on his/her luck. Years ago, I lived on Olive St. A one blocker near where you live (look for the Japanese gate leading up to a Green and Green). Every morning, I'd see a man get up, go get a paper and come back. He'd have his breakfast and then put on a suit and go to work. Each evening, he'd come home, change into "play clothes" and go for a bike ride. Parked in front of my home, I'd see this day in and day out. One day, I went down and asked him, with a smile - "Hey - are you my new neighbor?" Turns out, his wife and son were killed in an accident and this was all he had. She had always wanted to live here, but never got the chance. So he pulled himself together and decided to live her dream. He got a RV, and found a safe place where he could park, while looking for a job. He eventually found one, sold the RV which provided just enough for the 1st, last and deposit he needed.

Mind you - this is an exception to the rule. I've asked the cops what can they do when they see drug deals going on out of RVs and they are helpless. I've seen the funk zone area become a campground after 6pm. I know that the trash and filth does become a problem, but the exception always makes me think - who lives in there and what is their story....

something to ponder.

Anonymous said...

As per previous comment: While having sympathy for the "exception to the rule" person, it doesn't discount the truth in what Cherie Rae said. Something else that should be noted: it is an unsafe feeling having a constant trunover of transient neighbors in the neighborhood. People with kids, the elderly and single women are especially at risk of having their sense of security jeopardized.
On a different note, I appreciate and agree with Cherie's viewpoint, but this article was hard to read in a grammatical sense. It has grammatical errors (such as dashes, commas and fractured sentences) which caused me to have to reread sentences/phrases more than once. I'm not an English teacher by any stretch and I'm not familiar with Cherie Rae's column, so perhaps this is not the usual standard for a professional columnist.