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Car abandonment, fines on the rise

Take note, owners of registered vehicles: The fines and penalties for abandoning a vehicle on unincorporated Island County roads just went up in July.

Per the Revised Code of Washington, the last owner of record of a derelict car may lose his or her driver's license and be fined $490 if that car is found abandoned on a public road or right of way. The fine is up substantially from $86. Add to that towing fees of $75 or more, and dumping a car on public property is no longer a very good option for someone who wants to get out from under a clunky rustbucket.

Not just eyesores, derelict vehicles attract vandalism and are hazards on the road. According to the Island County Sheriff's Office, cars get dumped on roadsides by people who choose not to properly dispose of them. Doing so is not only an inconvenience and cost to the taxpaying public, but chews up the valuable time of Island County Sheriff's deputies.

Elected county officials are not amused by the problem.

"It's costly to taxpayers and a genuine problem, whether we leave the abandoned vehicle at the side of the road, or move it," said Island County Commissioner Bill Thorn.

Dealing with abandoned vehicles can tie up a total of half a business day for an Island County deputy, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Jan Smith. Law enforcement cannot simply have a hazard vehicle towed, unless it presents an immediate danger to the public. Though abandoning a car is very much like littering, a deputy must do a title search on such a vehicle, contact the last known owner, and attempt to persuade that person to dispose of it. If all that fails, the sheriff's office is still required to wait at least 14 days before removing most abandoned vehicles from public property and disposing of them.

The sheriff's office responds to about 50 cases of vehicle abandonment per month, though some of these vehicles are on private property. The majority of the roadside abandonment cases in the county are on South Whidbey, according to sheriff's Sergeant Rick Norrie. These cases keep Norrie and his deputies busier than they want to be over such mattes.

"We jump through a lot of hoops to take care of abandoned vehicles and other personal property," he said.

When an abandoned vehicle is found, a deputy attempts to reach the registered owner to notify and convince convince him or her to take care of the vehicle. If unsuccessful, the sheriff's office issues a citation by registered mail.

By law a vehicle's last registered owner of record is liable when it is abandoned. Unfortunately, once the owner is located, many vehicle owners don't understand or even believe they are responsible. Sometimes the vehicle has changed hands three and four times over a period of years, but no on has bothered to change the registration records.

"We urge people to record ownership changes when they sell vehicles," said Jan Smith, chief deputy at Island County Sheriff's Office.

If there's still no response to the mailed citation within 14 days -- during which time the vehicle must remain in place until it is officially declared abandoned -- then the sheriff's office refers the case to court. A judge can then fine a vehicle's owner and suspend his or her driver's license.

Complicating this process when deputies cannot get a vehicle's owner to remove a roadside derelict is getting rid of it after the waiting period is over. Two years ago, South Whidbey's three towing companies began refusing to tow abandoned cars after they discovered that the towing fee paid by Island County did not cover their costs. Most of the cars had little or no value, so impound and storage fees were rarely recovered through auctioning off abandoned vehicles.

These days, most of the towing and disposal work goes to Freeland's Island Recycling. The business charges Island County $60 per vehicle for towing, draining fluids and crushing the cars. The price can be as high as $100 if -- as often happens -- a derelict car is found packed to its roof with garbage.

"There's usually a lot of garbage in these cars," said Dave Campbell, who owns Island Recycling with his wife, Jill. "It's as though they've been sitting somewhere on someone's property for a long time."

Jan Smith said the problem is not abating. In fact, it's getting worse.

"It's a frustrating problem, and it seems to be increasing," Smith said.

She points to the economic times and the increase in the island's population as contributing factors. And, she said, vehicles are not the only problem. Other types of personal property that show up abandoned on public property and have to be dealt with, include boats, boat trailers, lawnmowers, mobile homes and campers.

In those cases the littering laws apply. This designation is even more costly to offenders when found, because the litterer will be fined by the cubic yard. In addition, according to Officer Norrie, these "littering" incidents fall under criminal misdemeanor laws and are an offense for which a litterer can be arrested. Such offenses are subject to fines and possibly jail time.

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