Paul Lewis says officials in California’s Sonoma County are treating him like a criminal, shutting down his recreational vehicle storage business and running off his customers, according to a report in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
But county officials say Lewis and others like him are breaking the law by charging RV owners who need a place to park their vehicles when they’re not being used.
County zoning regulations do not allow RV “storage facilities” on unincorporated land, code enforcement officials said, and that means that Lewis and three or four other large operators have been breaking the law for years.
Prompted by RV owners who say they will have nowhere to go if these operations are closed, Supervisor Mike Kerns will ask the board to reconsider the ban today.
RV parking lots should be permitted, as long as each use is considered on its own merits, he said.
“My feeling is they are not hurting anybody, there appears to be a need for them, let’s see if there is a way we can allow them,” he said.
Most California municipalities bar RV owners from parking on city streets for more than 72 hours and many owners do not have large enough lots to park the vehicles on their own property.
“It’s like they are discriminating,” said Helen Elrich, an RV owner in Petaluma. “Unless you own a large piece of property, where are you going to park it?”
Kerns said he hasn’t received a single complaint about the practice and storage owners say the reason they are facing a shutdown is that code officials found out about their operations while conducting other county business or were tipped off by a disgruntled employee.
Once alerted to a violation, the county has no choice but to pursue an investigation, said Nancy Lingafeldt, supervisor of the county’s code enforcement division.
But even if the supervisors amend their zoning rules to allow for RV storage, it may be too late for Lewis.
The county has ordered that his property in Petaluma be cleared of all recreational vehicles by Oct. 30, and he was fined more than $9,000. Lewis, who says 100 RVs can bring in about $50,000 annually, said he is willing to pay for permits and upgrades if it will make his business legal.
Lewis, who for decades ran an agricultural feed operation, is calling for a category of zoning that would allow agriculture business to transition into what he calls low-impact uses.
Running a storage operation is quieter, cleaner and has less impact than the dairy he ran for years, said Bob Muelrath, who stores about 50 RVs on his property southwest of Santa Rosa.
Muelrath received a letter warning of a land-use violation in June, but he is appealing.
“When I had a dairy here, I had feed trucks, hay trucks – salesmen were coming in and out,” he said. “This is a very clean, passive use for a portion of my property.”
The handful of people currently operating in violation of county laws just want an opportunity to run a legal business, Lewis said. If his customers don’t park with him, they’ll find another place to quietly – and illegally – stow their RV, he said.
“A lot of my customers are trying to find a place to hide them on ranches,” Lewis said. “They should not be treated like they are unwelcome in the county.”