After discovering that her vehicle had been towed from a street in Vashon’s congested north end late last month, islander Emily Herrick was left stranded and wanting an explanation.
“Upon calling the sheriff’s office, I was told that my car had been parked too close to the mailbox for the mail truck to safely deliver mail and that I could not park that close to a mailbox between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” she wrote to The Beachcomber. “Another car was parked where mine had been by the time I returned.”
Herrick said she parked 5 feet away from a mailbox and had thought it was enough space, adding that when she boarded the ferry at 10:30 a.m., the commuter parking lot was full — typical for that hour on most weekdays.
“I asked what the permissible distance was so I would know for the future, as there was no sign posted. The person put me on hold to find out and came back on the line to say ‘5 feet should be OK,’” she wrote.
Vehicles parked within 15 feet of residential mailboxes on the island have been impounded recently so postal employees can deliver mail, but the current traffic code enforced throughout King County does not impose any penalty for the violation greater than a $20 ticket.
Instead, it forbids parking “directly adjacent to a curbside next to clearly visible residential mailboxes between 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. on any day of scheduled mail delivery by the United States Postal Service.” It does not require parked vehicles to observe a minimum distance of 15 feet on either side of a mailbox, yet this condition has recently been enforced on the island.
Last Friday, the King County Sheriff’s Office began notifying some drivers of previously impounded vehicles that the traffic code had been updated by the King County Council on July 20 and they would be reimbursed for all related costs.
Before the update was made known, Herrick paid nearly $240 to retrieve her vehicle from the impound lot at Rick’s Diagnostics, where she was first told about the 15-foot buffer. Visiting the Post Office for more information, she said that no employee who was working that day knew of any regulation mandating 15 feet and was told to “Google it.”
Selected by the King County Sheriff’s Office as its towing contractor on Vashon, Rick Slater of Rick’s Diagnostics said he pressed the Post Office for weeks for information regarding the clearance around curbside mailboxes required by the agency.
“To my knowledge, there isn’t a written distance other than this diagram I have,” he said, holding up a small sheet of paper. The document he was given provides examples of scenarios in which postal employees could make a safe approach to curbside mailboxes versus when they are prevented from doing so.
Slater added that the rates charged for his services are established in agreement with the sheriff’s office and are not negotiable.
“I work very hard for that money,” he said, often having to stop in the middle of other work when the sheriff’s office requests a tow.
In June, the King County Council voted to increase penalties on parking in spaces outside of posted time restrictions, blocking traffic or driveway access, and parking large commercial vehicles on residentially zoned streets. The council did not change the $20 fee associated with parking next to a mailbox, which they named in their meeting agenda as belonging to section 46.04.060.D of the King County traffic code. But that section is not part of the code used today, according to Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ryan Abbott.
Section 46.04.060.D of the traffic code no longer appears on the King County website; the link is broken, but a Reddit user posted it in a comment thread on the website last year. It said that “No person shall park directly adjacent to a curbside, next to clearly visible residential mailboxes between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on any day of scheduled mail delivery by the United States Postal Service.” There is no mention of enforcing a 15-foot parking radius in the vicinity of residential mailboxes, and Abbott said he could not find anything in the updated traffic code supporting such a requirement.
“There are times we could impound for mailbox blocking, but most of the time [the violation] will not be up for impound, just a fine of $20,” he said.
The old code was cited by Deputy Kurt Lysen in the information Herrick received explaining why her car had been towed. After failing to reach her by phone, Lysen reported on the document that Herrick’s car “effectively blocked mail delivery” and that a distance of 15 feet on either side of a mailbox was required “according to Jennifer Grimm, Vashon Postmaster.” He referred to Grimm’s definition again on the information received by islander Gabriela Hoyas, whose vehicle was also towed for not complying.
Hoyas said of the day she was towed that “basically everybody was parked in what I think was a reasonable distance all around the exact same mailbox.” Later, she began observing the parking habits of other drivers in the north end, making note of their distances from mailboxes and the number of vehicles that had been ticketed for the infraction.
“At least two vehicles had something written on them that said ‘must park 15 feet away,’” she said.
Deputy Lysen said he wrote that directive on a number of vehicles parked near mailboxes using a water-based neon color marker in addition to issuing tickets. After learning about the 15-foot clearance through word of mouth, he spoke with Grimm, the Vashon postmaster, and “she explained how the drivers are not authorized to back up unless delivering a package. She explained that curbside mailboxes needed 15 feet of clearance,” he said.
Lysen said he next spoke to one of the daily north end USPS drivers who explained that parking 10 feet “or so” within a mailbox would prompt them to skip delivery to the address.
“I found out from the residents along SW 110th St and 104th Ave SW that frequently they were not getting their mail,” he said.
Lysen emphasized that he will try to contact the owners of vehicles before impounding them, and that “several people have actually left work to come back to the island to move their cars.”
“If they’re lucky, there’s a relative or friend on the island to come up and move their cars for them,” he said.
Hoyas said she spoke to the driver of one vehicle that was tagged by Lysen.
“He said, ‘15 feet from what?’ And I said exactly, no one knows.”
Grimm was unavailable to comment, but Ernie Swanson, a spokesperson for USPS services in Greater Seattle, said that the 15-foot buffer is needed for the safety of the drivers.
“At 15 feet in front of a mailbox as well as 15 feet behind, it enables our carriers easily to drive up to a mailbox and place mail,” he said. “We prefer carriers not have to back up at any point in their delivery because it reduces the potential of causing accidents.”
At the urging of Slater of Rick’s Diagnostics, Herrick appealed her impound. On Friday, she was notified that the sheriff’s office determined that its action was improper and that the cost of the tow would be reimbursed.
Detective Alex Paul, the hearing officer and tow coordinator for the sheriff’s office, wrote in an email to Hoyas, who also appealed, that her impound would be vacated as well and that all costs paid would be refunded. He said that the decision was prompted by the update to the King County traffic code, which he had only just learned of.
Paul said he was unable to speak on behalf of drivers who may have been towed under the wrong traffic code to say whether they should appeal and that only vehicles impounded after July 20 are affected. Impounds prior to July 20 stand, even if the incorrect code was cited in the decision to tow.