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No panhandling ordinance for Sylva

No panhandling ordinance for Sylva

Sylva will not update the Streets and Sidewalks section of its code of ordinances to include a section on panhandling after most of the board and public spoke against such a measure during a Nov. 10 public hearing.

“It’s really important to have these tough discussions,” said Commissioner Ben Guiney. “These are things that impact the entire country. This is a capitalist country where you have rich and you have poor. That’s the way it has been and it’s probably going to be that way in the future. None of these issues are easy to solve and something like panhandling turns out to be more of a symptom than a cause.”

The proposed ordinance came before the board after Sylva residents brought concerns to the board about people soliciting money at intersections, around operating businesses and ATMs. 

While Sylva does not have a panhandling ordinance, there are some stipulations already laid out in state law, which reads “no person shall stand or loiter in the main traveled portion, including the shoulders and median, of any state highway or street, excluding sidewalks, or stop any motor vehicle for the purpose of soliciting employment, business or contributions from the driver or occupant of any motor vehicle that impedes the normal movement of traffic on the public highways or streets.”

“It sounds like that’s illegal only if that impedes the normal movement of traffic on public highways or streets,” said Town Attorney Eric Ridenour. 

The ordinance also says that local governments “may enact ordinances restricting or prohibiting a person from standing on any street, highway, or right-of-way excluding sidewalks while soliciting, or attempting to solicit, any employment, business, or contributions from the driver or occupants of any vehicle.”

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At the direction of the board, Ridenour and Chief of Police Chris Hatton found ordinances common among other municipalities to craft a draft ordinance update for Sylva. According to Ridenour, the draft ordinance update was intended to prevent people from aggressive solicitation. 

“Any person is allowed to hold up a sign or something that’s non-aggressive saying whatever they want, that’s the right of free speech,” said Ridenour. “This is truly for aggressive solicitation. It doesn’t prohibit any other type of solicitation. It’s just a tool for the police department to enlighten certain individuals who have a propensity to act in accordance with things that most people would find scary or intimidating.”

The proposed ordinance contained a list of prohibited acts. It would have made it unlawful to beg, solicit or panhandle within 100 feet of any intersection of a public vehicular road or financial institution, within 15 feet of the edge of the pavement of any public vehicular road, within 20 feet of any commercial establishment open for business, while the person being solicited is standing in line for a commercial establishment, by touching the person being solicited without their consent, blocking the path of the person being solicited, following the person being solicited after that person has declined the request, by or with the use of threatening or profane language, between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., while under the influence of alcohol or any controlled substance, using false or misleading information or indicating the solicitor or member of their family suffers from a physical or mental disability when the information is false. 

Hatton made it clear that the draft ordinance was in no way intended to be harmful to people experiencing poverty or homelessness. 

“Our department works really hard. I spent half my day today doing homeless outreach, handing out resources to homeless people,” Hatton said. “We have a program for that, we’ve been pretty successful at finding people housing and lots of resources. So this is no way to damage any of that, free speech is free speech, we take it very seriously.”

In the end, a strong showing from residents opposed to such an ordinance and similar sentiment among board members stopped the update in its tracks. 

“I would never be in support of stopping somebody from being able to tell somebody that they need money ever,” said Hatton. “But just the manner in which they do it is definitely worth consideration.”

At the public hearing, six people spoke out against such a measure, while two, including the man who initially brought this to the attention of the board, spoke in favor. At least two of those people speaking against the measure had experienced homelessness themselves. 

“Three minutes is just not enough time to really dig into the intersectional problems that come along with criminalizing poverty and poverty culture, of which panhandling is a part,” said Sarah Cochran. 

The main concerns of the public were that the ordinance would criminalize non-criminal behavior, and that the ordinance did not actually address the issue of aggressive solicitation. The public urged the board to work towards addressing the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness, rather than criminalizing its effects. 

“According to the national homelessness law center, anti-panhandling not only fails to address root causes of systemic issues but in fact makes the situation worse for these community members by adding arrest records, fees and fines to their already daunting barriers of surviving in society,” said Mary, a Sylva resident. 

“Existing laws already address aggressive panhandling, whether it be coercion, touching, harassment, those things are banned at the state level as one would expect, along with not interrupting the normal flow of traffic,” said Garret Craig. “Rather than solve a problem, an unnecessary and redundant ordinance proposed for the town of Sylva actually introduces several new dangers.”

Another member of the public noted that people who are experiencing homelessness have an incredible impediment for finding employment due to the inability of finding a safe and regular place to sleep, bathe or wash clothes. 

George Neslen, one of the residents that initially brought this issue before the board, spoke again during the public hearing to thank the board for listening to his concern and having the discussion about panhandling in Sylva. He also brought up his concern for the safety of both solicitors asking for money at busy intersections, as well as the safety of those being solicited. 

“To me, this seems like a tool for law enforcement with zero financial investment. It’s not going to increase the budget,” said Neslen. 

Another man speaking in favor of the ordinance said he lived in Olympia, Washington, before coming to Sylva. He said that while many people were talking about this as a homeless issue, it was in fact a drug, alcohol and mental health issue. He said that he does not want Sylva to turn into a cesspool similar to that of Olympia.  

The last person to speak before the board was Kevin Richie, a man currently experiencing homelessness who claimed to be doing some of the very panhandling people had been complaining about. 

“I’m one of the panhandlers out there,” said Richie. “It’s not all just drug and alcohol problems or mental health. I was in a really bad car wreck. As you can hear, this is as loud as I can talk. I can’t breathe well. I smashed my throat and was on a feeding tube and breathing tube for 30 days. Because I was in the hospital for 30 days I lost my house, my vehicle, everything.”

Richie conceded that while there should be some rules in place, a complete ban on panhandling was uncalled for. 

“The problem is the housing,” said Richie. “There is literally nothing I can rent out there that I don’t have to have at least two grand for, if not more.”

Members of the board had several issues with the proposed ordinance. A few commissioners noted that though the draft ordinance update did not ban panhandling outright, the restrictions included in the update would have created a near total ban. By outlawing panhandling within 100 feet of any intersection, 15 feet of the edge of the pavement of any public vehicular road, or 20 feet of any commercial establishment in a small town like Sylva, panhandlers are left with very few places to ask for money where they can see people. 

Additionally, by outlawing panhandling within 15 of the edge of the pavement of any public vehicular road, people would not have been able to panhandle on any sidewalk, contrary to what the state ordinance stipulates is allowed. 

“This is not just about dealing with aggressive panhandling, this goes way beyond that,” said Commissioner David Nestler. “This essentially is a ban on panhandling, a complete ban. It bans it within 100 feet of any intersection, that’s where you panhandle.”

Other concerns among commissioners were the limiting of panhandling, a form of speech protected under the right to free speech, on public property such as public financial institutions. Commissioners felt they did not have the right to put a time limit on people’s free speech, as the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. stipulation in the draft ordinance would have done. 

“This ordinance, I think, is the one that I despise the most of any that has ever been proposed in the Town of Sylva,” said Nestler. “I think it makes the town look really bad. We’re not trying to make enemies out of poor people but that’s exactly what this ordinance is.”

Commissioner Greg McPherson suggested the town address the issue of safety and ability to panhandle in the redesign of the intersection of Asheville Highway and NC 107 in the upcoming NC 107 road project. 

“There are things we can do without passing these judgmental laws on anybody,” said McPherson. “This particular intersection is very dangerous, and I think with this reconfiguration we can probably come up with something to discourage people from standing there.”

Commissioners Guiney, Nestler and McPherson spoke in opposition to the ordinance, while Mary Gelbaugh suggested heavily editing the proposed ordinance. Commissioner Natalie Newman did not have a comment in regards to the proposed ordinance. After discussion, the ordinance did not make it to a vote for approval.  

“A lot of people say they have compassion towards poor people, and they do, when the poor person looks and acts like the Virgin Mary,” said Nestler. “But the thing about panhandling is, it’s a desperate act.” 

Leave a comment

4 comments

  • Thankful for those who spoke out against this ordinance.

    posted by BR

    Thursday, 11/17/2022

  • Guess those on Allen Henson Circle or Ridgeway Street don't deal with those kind of people

    posted by BT

    Thursday, 11/17/2022

  • As a former long haul trucker, I have seen many panhandlers who use various tactics to obtain money from others. Some try selling bags of fruit on a busy corner. Others offer flowers and ask for donations. From the folks I have seen around Sylva, they are polite and respectful when talking with people. I have made contributions on occasion and the person was very appreciative. "God bless you" was usually the response. That doesn't happen in most locales.

    posted by Karen Noftsier

    Thursday, 11/17/2022

  • To be surrounded by so much hate in Jackson County, it constantly amazes me that the City of Sylva can be this beacon of hope in an area otherwise devoid of it.

    posted by JB

    Wednesday, 11/16/2022

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