The Snohomish County Health District issued a health officer’s order last Monday for a strip of private property directly south of the Lewis Street Bridge that parallels the Skykomish River.
The area has received multiple complaints in recent months due to homeless encampments on the property, and in an adjacent Washington State Department of Transportation right of way.
Property owner Dale Reiner was given 15 days to comply with the order or potentially face legal action.
“You have been notified on several occasions by this office as well as the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office that this situation constitutes a violation of public health statutes and must be corrected,” according to the order issued by health officer and director Gary Goldbaum. “Despite these advertisements, you have not made any apparent progress towards removal of the material.”
Neighboring property owners Paula Peak and her husband, James Lorkowski, say they have documented activity related to the encampments for years. The couple says they’ve witnessed and called in criminal activity that occurred on their own property, and have found hazardous materials, such as drug needles, in the encampments. In November, Peak filed a formal complaint with the Washington Department of Ecology.
Since December, Sheriff’s Sgt. Ian Huri has made regular walkthroughs of the property. He said 8-10 people on average were found living in the encampments during any given visit, but “I am sure there were far more than that who would come and go, selling drugs or buying drugs.”
Huri said he’s seen some younger people, some older people, a veteran and one man who did have income but declined housing when offered. Some people had likely previously lived in an encampment in Al Borlin Park, he said.
Huri said the goal in the beginning was to connect anyone who was living in the encampments with available services, which was possible because of the embedded social workers that ride along with the deputies, adding this was done at Reiner’s request. Once everyone who wanted services had accepted them, Reiner was contacted to issue a no-trespassing order, which was the only legal way to get anyone off the property, he said.
Huri said Reiner has been cooperative during conversations about the property, “and expressed interest in returning the land to its proper state.” The area is not posted as private property because Reiner tries to keep the area open for swimmers and fishermen, he said.
Huri said a no-trespassing order was issued in December, and the violators were given 30 days to remove their belongings. The sheriff’s office has conducted regular walkthroughs since, to ensure no one has come back to the property, he said.
Reiner is responsible for the clean up, Huri said.
The area still has not been cleared of the leftover debris and materials as of early February. Jefferson Ketchel, environmental health division director, said the health district was not able to fully survey the area before “the no-trespass was complied with by transients that were living there,” but enough evidence was found to support the order during a visit by health district staff prior to the area being vacated, he said.
Ketchel said the order was issued Monday because of the volume of complaints received and the lack of progress made in cleaning up the property.
The order refers to the materials found on the property as “uncontained garbage.” Peak said she has found syringes on the property, which she has documented on social media. She said she has also found and photographed what appeared to be human waste in the area.
“I was trying to show our community that this is serious, this is a serious health hazard — it’s a danger,” she said.
Ketchel said drug needles (sharps) are considered biomedical waste and can’t be disposed in the garbage, but anyone can pick them up and place them in the proper receptacles, such as a sharps container.
“We are totally fine with volunteers coming and cleaning up, however, the property owner wants to handle that, as long as solid waste regulations are followed,” he said.
Peak said her main frustration is how long the process has taken. She is also concerned about the environment and the waste that is inevitably distributed into the Skykomish River during a heavy rain or when waters rise.
Huri contacted the River Junky, a service group founded in 2016 that organizes volunteers to clean up areas along the region’s rivers, and an event will take place 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 25. Some of the group’s volunteers are certified in disposal of hazardous materials, he said.
County Councilmember Sam Low and Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas have also been involved in the discussions about the property. Monroe’s interim city administrator David Moseley said because the property is not within city limits, the city had no way to respond to any illegal activity.
Low said WSDOT cleaned up its right of way under the bridge last week.
“I think it is important the public understands there is always more than one side to a story, and understanding the entire story is always good before passing judgment,” he said. “I think people saw a mess and started pointing fingers.”
Reiner declined to comment.