One warm evening in June, Ken and Jerri Stoddard drove their Winnebago RV up NW Leary Way in search of a place to park. The Stoddards, who live in their RV, have to move to a new street parking spot every three days in order to avoid getting a ticket.
They headed toward a favorite spot between 11th Avenue NW and 14th Avenue NW, where a big-leaf oak stretches its branches halfway across NW Leary Way, providing cool cover in summer.
When they arrived, the Stoddards found five red-and-white signs that said “No Parking 2 – 5 AM.” Concerned about getting a ticket, they parked somewhere else.
But the signs — 12-by-18-inch, white aluminum rectangles with red print — were fakes, created to deter homeless people living in their cars from parking there.
Workers for AMP Enterprises installed the signs earlier this year to keep people from parking overnight near the Rudd Company Inc., a paint manufacturer. AMP rents its nearby property to Rudd. In June, city workers took the signs down, but AMP reinstalled them, embedding them in concrete this time.
It was no small task: Rose Waterman, owner of Acclaim Sign & Display in Ballard, estimates the signs would cost $35 to $100 each, depending on the material and manufacturer.
Contacted by Real Change, Doug Carroll, who works for AMP, said he had been unaware that it was illegal to install the signs and replaced them under the assumption they had been vandalized.
AMP got the message at last. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT informed the company that the signs had to come down by Aug. 9, or face fines. Carroll said the signs came down by the morning of the deadline.
He said the reason they went up in the first place was because, for years, car campers have littered the area with car parts and hypodermic needles.
“Basically out of desperation, we had a couple of signs put along that block,” Carroll said. “That seemed to resolve the issue.”
In fact, it only stirred up a latent debate. The fakes highlight an ongoing friction between car campers and the nearby businesses. In response to complaints from business owners, SDOT in 2010 started installing parking signs banning overnight parking in Ballard, but stopped under pressure from homeless advocates.
Since then, the city has had an unofficial moratorium on no-parking signs in the area, said Graham Pruss, a research fellow at Seattle University’s Vehicle Residency Research Program and a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington who has studied car camping for the past three years.
Ballard’s industrial neighborhood remains one of the few places in North Seattle where car campers can live. The city signs had the effect of concentrating car campers in a smaller area and it has only made problems worse.
“The businesses there are pissed off, and they should be,” Pruss said.
Business owners say car campers make a mess and scare away customers.
“We’ve had people come out of their campers and use our flower beds for toilets,” Carroll said. “They left trash on the property: shopping carts, bicycle parts, broken chairs, car batteries. We just put up with it and dealt with it.”
Car campers, meanwhile, have found their own way of dealing with signs that they are unwanted. Once they found out about the fakes, the Stoddards parked on the block overnight and never got a ticket. But they were outraged that someone would try to trick them.
“I just couldn’t believe that somebody would go through all that trouble,” Ken Stoddard said. “That costs a lot of money.”
It’s also cost some trust. Some car campers now say they don’t know what signs they can believe, and with good reason. It’s not easy to tell the difference between ersatz signs and the real deal.
Most of the real signs have a code on the bottom, “SEATTLE-05-02” or “SEATTLE-2-93.” Other authentic signs have no visible code.
The only way to tell for sure, Pruss said, is to look at the back of the signs. The city signs are metallic on the back; AMP’s signs had a white coating.
When asked to pick the counterfeit, Michael Dollemore, who lives in a beige RV with his cat and five kittens, couldn’t tell the difference.
“Those are all fake?” he said. “They sure look like the real ones.”