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Bozeman moves forward with urban camping regulations

RVs and cars parked along Rawhide Ridge Road near the 19th avenue commercial corridor in Bozeman in July of 2022.
Olivia Weitz
Olivia Weitz
RVs and cars parked along Rawhide Ridge Road near the 19th avenue commercial corridor in Bozeman in July of 2022.

Federal court rulings say cities must allow people to sleep outside on public property if there is no shelter space available. But, cities can regulate the time, place and manner people may camp on public right of ways.

The original ordinance proposed in August required people staying in tents and RVs to move every five days or face $100 per day fines. It also restricted camping adjacent to or across from schools, homes and parks or within 100 feet of businesses.

At their meeting on Tuesday, Bozeman city commissioners kept the place restrictions, but modified the timeframe people may camp on the same street and how much they could be fined.

Commissioner Christopher Coburn says fines would be $25, but only after receiving 3 warnings.

“25 might even be too much, but $100 definitely is way too much. If you give someone a ticket for hundred dollar fines and they don’t even have 20 dollars that might as well be like a million dollars. And it’s going to keep compounding. The problem gets worse and worse. This is an attempt to make that section a little bit easier, and I think more compassionate and responsive,” he said.

City Manager Jeff Mihelich explained that people can request extensions beyond 30 days if for instance they are close to securing housing or are keeping a tidy camp.

Commissioners unanimously passed the modified ordinance after 2 hours of public comment. Close to 10 business owners testified, many asking for strict enforcement and expressing concerns about the appearance of encampments and safety.

Businessman Donnie Olsson shared his concerns.

“I’ve had to lock the doors in my office. Clients don’t want to come to my office, my employees are not comfortable coming and going in the dark,” he said.

More than a dozen unhoused people testified about the difficulty of finding housing and how the ordinance would impact them. Bozeman Tenants United member David Wadrick lives in a camper and works at a hotel.

“Winter is coming soon. My things will be frozen to the ground soon. Nobody will be able to move them regularly. I can’t afford hundreds of dollars in fines when I’m paying for my heat,” he said.

Unhoused people, business owners, and others who testified suggested creating a designated camping area. City Manager Mihelich said finding a property for this purpose within the city of Bozeman would be difficult, among other obstacles.

“There’s challenges with putting people in close proximity to one another; there's challenges with providing porta potties and sanitary conditions, even security,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham suggested the city consider an emergency declaration, which would allow the city to levy mills to fund housing resources. The city of Missoula enacted one earlier this year.

“I think it can help us incentivize people who do have property, maybe are commercial campground owners, that well vetted folks can find a place where there are those facilities,” he said.

Cunningham also mentioned using funds for storing RVs and campers for those entering into transitional housing and using funds to help those staying in public right of ways get into the rental market.

Commissioner Jennifer Madgic also expressed interest in the emergency declaration concept, among other approaches.

“There’s not one solution. This ordinance is not going to fix the problem. Our affordable housing strategies are going to help, but they aren’t going to truly fix the problem. We’re really going to need a multiple, multifaceted approach and really to have the community behind working on a multifaceted approach. I think it's really clear to me tonight that we need the community working together,” she said.

The commission could decide to further modify the ordinance when it has a second reading in October. The soonest urban campers could see enforcement is mid November.

The city is hiring two Community Health & Safety Officers who will focus on getting those staying in public right of ways into compliance.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.