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A win-win for the Port and campers evicted from Port property

A modest proposal

with thanks to Jonathan Swift

On Monday Sept. 14, 2020, a group of people camped on property belonging to the Port of Olympia were confronted by Thurston County Sheriff deputies and a big dumpster: they were to leave immediately. Port Commissioner Joe Downing explained that “the particular piece of land that the campers were on was not an appropriate piece of land, so action had to be taken.”

The Sheriff’s deputies were there because Tumwater officials had refused to evict the campers, stating via a spokesperson: “we do not believe police are the best resource to respond to those experiencing homelessness, and arresting people camping on this Port property is not appropriate.”

Photo by Ricky Osborne

For the Port Commissioner it was about a billionaire developer. A Port spokesperson said that the Port had to evict the campers because it has “contractual obligations to the developer Panattoni” who signed a lease option agreement that includes the encampment area. But nothing in the lease prevents a few people from camping on the property for the next couple of years. Panattoni isn’t going to do anything relating to the property until the Port completes a habitat study that can take up to two years…and if it turns out to cost too much, the Port can cancel the lease.

There is a solution right in front of the Port: an abandoned Washington State ferry, capable of housing hundreds of people…

For Tumwater officials, it was about the people camping. Homeless advocates pointed out that removing the campers was against the law: a state court decision forbids removal of people from public property unless they are offered adequate alternatives. Plus, Governor Inslee has issued a moratorium on evictions. In response, the Port argues that despite its status as a public entity, its property is private. A statement by the sheriff’s deputy sidestepped the Governor’s moratorium: “It’s not an eviction, we were removing trespassers.”

At their meeting the night of the evictions, the Port Commissioners decided to offer a different piece of land for lease as a homeless site. EJ Zita, the one Port Commissioner who hadn’t approved the decision to evict the campers, proposed that they commit to doing that within two weeks—but Joe Downing and Bill McGregor voted against that.

There is a solution right in front of the Port: an abandoned Washington State Ferry, capable of housing hundreds of people, sitting at the Port dock within easy reach of services downtown and just racking up moorage charges with no one to pay them. The Port welcomed the aged vessel enthusiastically when its entrepreneurial owner approached them in 2018. Their enthusiasm waned when the owner stopped paying moorage fees and then disappeared, leaving the vessel to whoever might eventually tow it away.

The ferry has plenty of room to house the campers evicted from the Tumwater site—and even many more. The spacious car decks could accommodate many camp sites. There is a cafeteria with a kitchen and eating area. Plenty of bathrooms. Benches and tables line the upper deck, where people could study or play board games during the day. With 30,000 gallons of fuel, the ferry could be kept warm for the entire winter. It could even be named (temporarily) in honor of the two responsible Port Commissioners, the McGregor-Downing Manor.

Or the converted ferry could be named the Panattoni Palace, after Carl Panattoni, in whose behalf McGregor and Downing approved the removal of the campers. It would be only fitting to house people displaced from land leased with a significant tax subsidy from the people of Olympia. Carl Panattoni has been on a mansion-buying spree since 2018 when he bought a Palm Beach mansion for $18 million, followed in 2019 by a $38 million mansion in Newport Beach California and then another Palm Beach house for $29 million in 2020.

This is enough mansions to house any number of people who don’t have a roof over their heads. Surely Mr. Panattoni would be pleased that his having a lease option on land where homeless people camped didn’t deprive them of a place to live. He clearly knows the value of a home. Or, many homes.

Information and quotes in this essay came from the excellent article in the Sept 16 Olympian “Port addresses homeless camp sweep, explores plan for sanctioned site,” by Brandon Block, as well as from local Port watchers. Jonathan Swift is the patron saint of all satire writers.

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