Camas faces parking problems at popular park

City leaders seek solutions to Heritage Park's crowded parking lot, unruly behavior

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Vehicles park at Heritage Park in Camas Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Ask any newcomer to Camas what attracted them to the city and there’s a good chance the city’s abundant parks and open spaces will be on that list.

But the popularity of Camas’ parks sometimes comes with headaches for users as well as city staff. The city’s 5.5-acre Heritage Park, which offers boat launch access to the adjacent Lacamas Lake, has caused more than a few headaches this summer.

Camas Parks and Recreation Director Trang Lam said the decade-old park has seen more use over the past couple years than city officials ever expected.

During the summer months, the park is typically over capacity Friday through Sunday, Lam said, and is often at capacity during the other four days of the week.

“No one expected this level of use,” Lam said. “The pandemic created even more use in the park. And when you get more use there’s going to be more conflict.”

Lam said the majority of park users are not causing problems.

“About 95 percent of the people are really nice,” she said. “But every single weekend we have a handful of people who are mean to our parking lot attendants … or just not being courteous with other people.”

Lam recently told the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission that the park has seen its fair share of parking problems as well as incidents near the boat launch during the warm summer months.

People on non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks and standup paddleboards often want to use the boat launch to access Lacamas Lake, Lam said, and sometimes get in the way of motorized boats trying to exit the lake at the same time.

“They do not like to get out of the way of the giant boat that’s coming at them,” Lam said. “We have had two monitors at the boat ramp all day long, getting people to move out of the way. The boaters know them by name now.”

And then there is the parking lot.

“We’re usually at capacity early in the morning and then the late afternoon folks come around 1 or 2 into the evening,” Lam told the Commission members. “The afternoon people are a lot angrier because it’s hotter in the day.”

Some afternoon and evening park users have directed their aggression over a lack of parking availability toward the city’s parking attendants, Lam said.

“They are yelling at my parking attendants in not-so-nice words,” the parks director said, “and we’ve actually had to tow a few cars this summer.”

Some of the interactions have become so heated, the Camas Police Department now regularly drives by the park to make sure everything is OK, Lam said.

“I want to put it out there that people aren’t nice anymore,” Lam told the Parks and Recreation Commission in August. “And it has gotten more stressful for (staff) over the last couple years.”

City staff have noticed Heritage Park users double-parking in spaces, preventing strangers from being able to leave when they return to their vehicle.

The parking situation at Heritage Park recently prompted the Camas City Council to approve new city code language allowing repercussions for city park users who park more than one vehicle — or two motorcycles — in one parking space.

Some Heritage Park users also park in a nearby city parking lot meant for the city’s Lacamas Lake Lodge.

“We have also been seeing impacts on the lodge parking lot,” Lam said. “We have signs up, but people drive by and ignore them.”

To help keep the lodge parking lot free for lodge users — including many who attend the city’s recreation classes inside the lodge — the city has asked the lodge facility monitor to come in early to help monitor that lot, Lam said.

“We have also told our parking lot attendants to run over (to the lodge parking lot) to tell people to get out,” Lam told the Commission members.

On the positive side, the on-street parking near Heritage Park, which caused the city’s police department to get involved and begin issuing fines for illegally parked vehicles during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, seems to be getting better.

“The on-street parking has not been an issue,” Lam said. “A few people have parked on the grass across the street, but we’ve managed that. We don’t want people parking on the other side (of the road) for safety reasons — they’re crossing a street where people are going 40 miles per hour and at that curve, where you can’t see.”

Lam said she has been on-call every weekend this summer to assist Heritage Park parking staff with the issues occurring on particularly busy weekend days.

“They’ll hand the phone over to an angry person to talk to me, or … ask if they can tow a car,” Lam said.

The city had to tow three vehicles this summer, Lam said, and her parking lot attendants called the non-emergency police number (311) when people argued with staff or each other.

“We haven’t had any 911 calls,” Lam added. “That is reserved for (things) that are beyond just an argument. But we have had to call 311 … and the police know about the parking issues. They regularly drive by to check in.”

A search for solutions

Lam said she and members of the Parks and Recreation Commission have discussed possible remedies to the Heritage Park parking woes, including the possibility of reconfiguring the lot to fit more vehicles, installing a gate that staff could close when the lot is full and — like other jurisdictions in Clark County — charging a nominal fee to park at the popular site.

“Charging fees is not about making money,” Lam told the Commission. “It’s about managing capacity and safety.”

Lam told The Post-Record this week that, if the city does decide to charge fees for the Heritage Park parking lot, it would be less about generating revenues and more about helping to turnover the available parking spaces. The idea is that, if people pay to park for two hours, for instance, they will be more likely to return to the parking lot at the end of that two-hour timeframe and move their vehicle, allowing others to access the park.

Fees are not uncommon at park sites throughout Clark County, Lam said, adding that she knows other Clark County jurisdictions that are considering fees as a way to manage popular parking lots.

“We can’t be the only ones not charging if everyone else is going to charge,” Lam said, adding that there are other parking lot options for people wishing to access Lacamas and Round lakes — including a county-owned gravel lot off Northeast 35th Avenue, a parking lot at the Lacamas Regional Park trailhead and the city’s gravel lot off Southeast Leadbetter Road.

“Another option is re-striping the parking lot to add more spaces,” Lam said, “but it might take a little bit more than just re-striping. We have to look at the landscape islands and how they’ve been built.”

The parks director added that the city could also look at restructuring the Heritage Park parking lot and maybe try to access some grant money to expand the lot or reconfigure it so that it offers more parking spots. One issue the city has is that it must — for grant-related reasons — continue to offer a certain number of parking spots for vehicles with boat trailers at Heritage Park, which tend to take up a significant amount of parking spaces.

“If we want to take a look at this and reconfigure, we can do that,” Lam said of the existing parking lot. “But I don’t think even adding 20 more spaces here will solve our problem.”

Lam added that, when the parking lots for Heritage Park and Lacamas Lake Lodge were first constructed, Camas was a much smaller community.

“We never thought we’d have this type of traffic coming through here,” she said.

The city estimates that most Heritage Park users are Washingtonians, but that people from out of state — mainly from Oregon — are also accessing the park and its parking lot.

“We are finding that, generally, 70 to 80 percent are Washingtonians; 10 to 20 percent are Oregonians; and then there are random people from (other states) either passing through or who maybe just moved here and haven’t changed their plates,” Lam said, adding that, if the city were to someday charge for parking at Heritage Park, city officials could decide to charge different rates for in-state versus out-of-state users, as well as for cars versus boat trailer vehicles.

“We could charge a nominal fee … maybe $1 or $2 for cars and more for trailers,” Lam said.

In the meantime, Lam said, the city “will continue having seasonal staff out there no matter what because of the clog down by the dock.”

Lam said she intends to bring more information to the Parks and Recreation Commission in the winter of 2024, and to the Camas City Council next spring. The parks director said that, ideally, the city would have something approved and in place to help calm the Heritage Park parking situation by next summer.