With tow yards full, Salem could see more abandoned RVs on its streets

A trailer with a towing warning on it in the Mega Foods parking lot on Devonshire Avenue on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Suzanne Reynolds recently saw an RV parked by South Salem High School, she thought, “I’m going to get 100 calls for this.”

Reynolds is a code compliance division manager at the city of Salem, fielding complaints from residents about illegally parked vehicles and RVs.

Currently, her office gets two to five complaints a day just about RVs. She’s expecting that to jump, because the two tow companies the city contracts with to take those derelict RVs away don’t have any more space in their yards.

“We’ve been trying to find out how we’re going to fix this for quite a while,” she said. “We have called all over the place trying to find someone to demolish these things.”

That means Salem’s streets could soon see more RVs being left behind as the city scrambles to find a solution to a problem that’s been growing in tandem with the homelessness crisis. More people have turned to living in cars or RVs as they’re priced out of a costly and tight rental market.

But RVs, especially older models, can be filled with toxic materials and made inhabitable by lack of access to dump stations or power.

Disposing of an RV is expensive, costing thousands of dollars depending on their condition.

Mike Wagner, owner of Santiam Towing and Recovery in Lyons, said when towers take an abandoned car, they’ll usually get some amount of money from scrapping it.

That’s not the case with RVs.

“Any way you dispose of an RV costs money,” he explained.

Wagner said sometimes RVs have rodents and they have to check for asbestos.

They’re full of human waste, needles, garbage. Stinky, nasty rotten stuff,” he said.

Once he towed an RV that was alongside the road that was full of 93 tires. It cost $3 to $5 per tire to dispose of them.

“Most towers are coming to the conclusion, maybe you can’t afford it pay it any longer,” he said.

The tow companies Salem Reporter talked to emphasized that they’re happy to be part of the solution, but don’t want to continue bearing the brunt of the cost.

“Towers would be happy in most cases to tow these things for free. We’d be thrilled because it’s really the end game that’s the hard part. That’s where it costs, and that’s where the risks are,” said Chelsie Kemp, executive secretary of the Oregon Tow Truck Association.

During the 2021 legislative session, the association pushed for SB 466, which would charge a $12 fee to new RV sales and for tag renewals to create a fund to dispose of derelict RVs.

It didn’t pass. Kemp said the fund would’ve gone a long way toward helping fix the problem.

Kemp said the solution needs to be statewide, because smaller communities are facing the same issues.

She said sellers have 10 days to flag a vehicle as sold and then the new owner has to register it.

Kemp said if the vehicle is flagged as sold, but the buyer doesn’t register it there’s no owner.

“You have no one to pursue for payment,” she said.

Wagner said he recently towed two RVs for free in Lyons to avoid putting them in his tow yard, where nine other RVs are sitting.

“I haven’t made a habit of towing things for free. I guess that’s the extent of my desperation at this point in time,” he said. Wagner doesn’t tow for the city of Salem.

It’s become more of an issue in the last three years, Wagner and Reynolds both said.

When the city gets a complaint about an abandoned vehicle, officers will go out, tag cars or RVs and try to make contact with the owners.

People can get tickets if their car is parked too long on a city street, if the RV is too long, if the vehicle is unlicensed, it’s being lived in or isn’t road worthy.

Reynolds said most of the RVs they tag don’t run anymore. “Sometimes we don’t even know how they got that far,” she said.

“Some of these vehicles are in such bad shape they fall apart when they’re trying to tow them away,” she explained.

Reynolds said the city has only found one place that will demolish derelict RVs, Rapid Response Bio Clean in Portland.

She said local towers have explored trying to do disposal themselves, but it requires too much space and is costly.

Jeff Asher, owner of B.C. Towing in Salem, said he’s gotten a couple RVs that he’s had to get hazmat teams to clean.

Asher doesn’t tow for the city of Salem, but recently was contacted by the city of Dallas to tow an RV.

It was an older unit and he said it would’ve cost $6,000 to dispose of. The city looked for other options.

“It’s junk abatement. You’re just cleaning up the environment,” he said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]. 

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