Bicyclists flock to the Fall City area on weekends, drawn to the scenic landscape, where rural farmland intersects with the forested Tiger Mountain and Snoqualmie River.
One weekend in June, 2,500 bicyclists from a Cascade Bicycle Club event called Flying Wheels Summer Century converged on the area just as the Survivor Mud Run at Remlinger Farms brought in 4,500 dirt-splattered weekend warriors.
The result was a bad scene, according to a Cascade Bicycle Club blog post about the event.
The club received complaints about the event from King County and the cities of Carnation and Duvall, claiming that cyclists swore at people, urinated on private property and flashed middle fingers at drivers.
“It was not a good feeling,” the club said in a statement to its members.
Afterward, King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert fielded calls from upset constituents. Unincorporated King County has become overrun with events organized by recreational clubs and charitable groups that bring people from King County’s urban core out into the country, she said.
No one thinks about the effect all these outdoor enthusiasts have on residents in her district, who Lambert sees as “an unprotected minority group.”
“They deserve to be treated fairly, and they are not treated fairly,” she said.
In the interest of fairness, on Aug. 27
Lambert proposed a ban on public urination and defecation that would allow the King County Sheriff’s office to issue tickets up to $125.
The King County Council will discuss the issue Sept. 30 at 1:30 p.m. on the 10th floor of the King County Courthouse.
Lambert sees the proposed law as a common-sense response to rude and unsanitary behavior.
But critics say what started as a conflict between residents of rural King County and the people drawn there for recreation could have unintended consequences for poor and homeless people.
Advocates for homeless people and a few of Lambert’s colleagues on the nine-member King County Council say prohibiting public urination will affect people who have little access to restrooms and cannot pay court fees.
“It’s completely absurd to fine people [for relieving themselves outdoors] if there is no alternative,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Most people, if they have the option, prefer to carry out private bodily functions in private.”
Lambert’s proposed law would apply to the 1,700 square miles of unincorporated land that is governed by King County alone. The area includes mountains, forests, farmland and even denser urban areas such as White Center or Skyway.
Lambert said it’s a last resort. She’s already asked organizers of bike rides and runs to be more respectful of residents of the area, but to no avail, she said: “At some point you have to say enough is enough.”
King County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jason Stanley said the ordinance would solve a long-standing problem for law enforcement. If he or another officer gets a complaint about public urination, they can’t do much. The only charge that applies is indecent exposure, which can be a misdemeanor or felony that could label people as sexual predators.
Stanley said the King County Council is catching up with the times.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said.
Councilmember Joe McDermott thinks a law would hurt the residents in his district, which includes White Center, an unincorporated area with density similar to nearby Burien or SeaTac.
The proposed law is intended to curb bad behavior by middle-class people in a rural area, but McDermott is concerned how it could be enforced on homeless people in his district. There were 51 people counted sleeping outside in White Center during the 2013 One Night Count.
Even as a civil infraction, the proposed law could pile fines on people who cannot pay them, McDermott said. Unpaid court fees could lead to stiffer penalties and charges for ignoring tickets.
That’s what happens in Seattle.
The city passed its own law banning public urination and defecation about 14 years ago. The citations issued today are largely ignored.
Since Jan. 1, 2012, Seattle has issued 210 citations for public urination; 166 of them have not been paid, said Gary Ireland, spokesperson for the Seattle Municipal Court.
King County already has $682 million in unpaid court fees, said Councilmember Larry Gossett. A law banning public urination would add to that figure without curbing the behavior.
“You cannot squeeze juice out of a turnip,” Gossett said. “Most people who owe these fines have no means to pay them.”
Lambert said she’s also coming up with other remedies.
She asked the county permitting office to require more portable toilets for events. She’s also meeting with event organizers to make sure they schedule events carefully to avoid doubling up traffic on a single weekend or getting in the way of harvest season in the farming community.
Those efforts target the events, which Lambert says are the source of the problem. She also insists that a public urination law is necessary and won’t harm homeless people.
“Most of the people who are part of the problem are not indigent people,” she said, adding that homeless people should find a private place to urinate before going in public. “Out in my district, they can find a good, private, quiet tree, or they can go to a gas station.”