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Oak Harbor bans tent camping

The city of Oak Harbor banned tent camping at the City Beach RV park earlier this month in response to “a lot of rowdy conduct,” Parks Director Hank Nydam said.

As a result, several homeless people have been left scrambling to find a place to stay while others argue the move is unfair to tent campers.

“It’s wrong. It discriminates against poor people who can’t afford anything but tents,” said Jack Aanen of Vancouver, B.C. He, his wife and another couple have come to Oak Harbor for years to camp in their RVs.

“You can have problems with some guys in motorhomes, too,” he added.

Ron Hunt is a camp host, with help from Dona Cordell, at Island County’s Rhododendron Park just south of Coupeville. He said four homeless folks — a group of three and an older woman — came to his park after they were kicked out of Oak Harbor.

Hunt said they had to leave after a week because of park rules. “They left the place nice and clean,” he said, “but I worry about where they went.”

Cpt. Rick Wallace with the Oak Harbor Police said the number of complaints at the RV park increased dramatically in July. The problem, he said, was centered around one camp site in particular that had multiple tents. A young man and a woman “set up residence” in the park, he said, and “and gave no indication that they were going to leave.”

Wallace said the site became a party spot where a couple of dozen people would congregate. People in RVs complained to police about drinking, fighting and loud music.

On Aug. 3, for example, police responded to a report of a 16-year-old girl “violently throwing up” on Beeksma Avenue, Wallace said. She had been drinking at the tent site.

In response, Nydam said city officials decided to close the “overflow / tent camping” area and ban tent camping at the RV hook-up sites unless they are associated with an RV.

“It was the best leverage we had to move the bad behavior,” Wallace said.

It worked. Wallace said the number of complaints from the RV park has gone back to the normal level since tent camping was banned.

According to city codes, alcohol consumption is allowed in the RV park, but not in the adjacent City Beach Park. Campers can stay for up to 30 days. The fee for RV sites are $20 a night and tent sites — or RV sites without hook-ups — are $12 nightly.

Nydam said the vacancy rate at the park is constantly fluctuating, but “it does pretty well.” The parks brings in about $100,000 a year to city coffers, he said.

The moratorium on tent camping lasts until Sept. 30. In the meantime, Nydam said city staff is brainstorming about a permanent solution to the problem.

“We’re talking about maybe shortening stays,” he said. “We could keep the tent / overflow closed and maybe open it when we feel it’s necessary, like during large events.”

Such a closure, however, could have an unintended consequence at other parks on the island. Hunt said he’s sure that many people, especially the homeless, who would normally tent camp in Oak Harbor will turn to Rhododendron Park.

Hunt said an older woman who lost her job on South Whidbey had been living in the Rhododendron Park, but moved to the Oak Harbor RV park after the county limited camping stays to seven days in a row. She came back to the Rhododendron Park after being banned from the RV park, but then she had to leave.

“She wasn’t a trouble maker,” Hunt said. “She wasn’t doing drugs or drinking.”

Livia Petronio, a RV camper who comes to Oak Harbor often with her husband and the Aanens, said the police should just deal with the troublemakers instead of banning tents. She said they’ve been coming to the park for years and never had any problems.

“It’s not very nice,” she said, referring to the moratorium on tents. “I guess you can cause trouble in RVs too.”

Yet apparently the ban on tents in not completely strict. Eric and Michelle VanBrocklin slept in a tent at the park Thursday night, which was the only tent at the park. They said “a city guy” told them they could camp there as long as there weren’t any other tents on the site.

Since the overflow / tent area was closed, they had to camp in an RV site, which cost them $20 for the night. It was extra money that they couldn’t afford to spend, but they weren’t too upset about it because the site has electrical hook ups.

“My husband is going to go get our TV and VCR,” Michelle said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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