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Macon imposes penalty for camping on greenway

Macon imposes penalty for camping on greenway

There will be legal penalties for camping on the Little Tennessee River Greenway in Macon County after the County Commission updated the ordinance that regulates use of the greenway last week.

 “I think the intent here is to keep the greenway accessible to all walks of life, all people,” said Commissioner Josh Young.

The county already had an ordinance in place that regulated use of the Little Tennessee River Greenway, dating back to 2002. However, that ordinance did not expressly prohibit camping. On June 13, commissioners updated Chapter 28 of the Macon County Code of Ordinances to prohibit camping on the greenway and institute penalties for anyone doing so.

Sheriff Brent Holbrooks spoke to the board about the frequency with which his staff encounters people attempting to camp on the greenway. Holbrooks said that since he took office at the end of 2022, he has added four total bike patrol officers to the greenway and that “they’ve had several encounters with homeless camped throughout the greenway.”

Commission Chairman Paul Higdon asked Holbrooks what happens when his deputies encounter people camped out on the greenway. According to the sheriff, the ordinance as it was previously written did not allow for enforcement of any kind.

“Currently, we can’t do anything,” said Holbrook. “[We] basically make contact and make sure they don’t have any warrants for their arrest, just check on them pretty much and go about their business.”

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With the amendment to the ordinance, violation for camping now carries a “misdemeanor punishable on conviction by a fine not exceeding $50 or by imprisonment not exceeding 30 days.”

While some Macon residents were concerned that changing the ordinance to prohibit camping would have an outsized impact on people experiencing homelessness, Holbrooks argued that regulating camping across county property addresses multiple populations.

“Whether or not you agree to forbid camping along the greenway, I think we need to prohibit camping, not only on the greenway, but on all county-owned properties. With that being said, who’s to say whether folks are homeless or not homeless?” said Holbrooks. “Thru-hikers, what’s to say that they can’t pop a tent at East Franklin School or Parker Meadows or wherever the case may be? I think we need some sort of restrictions on camping on all Macon County property. And if you do agree to allow them to camp on county property, I think they need to be required to register; what that looks like, I don’t know.”

Although the sheriff mentioned regulating camping across all county property, the revised ordinance only addresses camping on the Little Tennessee River Greenway.

Two people spoke during a public hearing on the ordinance update, one of whom is a member of Friends of The Greenway, a group that supports efforts in the care and enhancement of the greenway. She noted that camping is already prohibited on the greenway in the group’s bylaws, and that the Franklin Police patrol the area “from time to time.”

Hilda Hartman also spoke during the public hearing, though her concerns were directly related to people experiencing homelessness.

“Homeless encampments, what do they do to the community? They bring blight, crime, violence, death and an unhealthy environment of drugs,” Hartman said. “The more benefits you offer, the more homeless will be attracted to our area.”

Commissioner John Shearl, the only member of the board to vote against the changes to the amendment, expressed concern for costs the county may incur due to the change.

“A lot of these folks are sick, a lot of them have nowhere to go, they don’t have any money,” said Shearl. “You’re looking at fining them 50 bucks and 30 days in jail, so we’re gonna house these people 30 days on their second offense and that looks like to me a huge burden on the taxpayers of this county. In my mind, sending these people to jail is going to cost us a lot of money in the long run.”

Board Attorney Eric Ridenour noted that there is a push nationwide to have a social worker on law enforcement staff to help deal with these types of issues — non-emergency incidents involving unhoused people or those experiencing mental health/ substance use disorders.

Ridenour also serves as the board attorney for the Town of Sylva, which has employed a full-time social worker in its police department to assist in non-emergency incidents and coordinate between people and the services that could help them. The position, part of the Community Care Program, has been successful in assisting people experiencing substance use disorder, mental health issues, homelessness and poverty.

Ridenour addressed Shearl’s concern and said it was unlikely the county would end up incurring much cost at all due to the changes in the ordinance.

“For now, we don’t have the tools even to approach them to figure out what’s going on,” said Ridenour. “Here, if they’re camping on it then the sheriff’s deputies have the opportunity to do that. When we get into the criminality of it, that would actually take a full-blown arrest, housing them in the jail, having them post an unsecured bond, then showing up in court and having your court date and to be honest, the chances of getting to that stage are not very great just because that’s inefficient. That’s an inefficient use of county resources, of the sheriff’s officers, and what we’re trying to accomplish with basically just keeping the homeless out of the greenway corridor.”

Holbrooks agreed with Ridenour, saying that he didn’t think a simple trespass charge would warrant a secured bond.

“If these folks are arrested, I’m fairly confident to stand here and tell you that they would get an unsecured bond, just a promise to show up in court for that charge,” said Holbrooks. “It’s not like we’re gonna have 60 people in jail for camping on the greenway that have a ton of medical issues, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a second-degree trespass charge carry a secured bond; 24 years in, never seen it.”

Young made the motion to accept the proposed changes to the ordinance, something he said would help prevent the greenway from turning into a homeless encampment.

“I think this ordinance, in my interpretation, isn’t to put people in jail and create a tax burden, by no means do I agree with doing that, but I think more or less it’s to prevent our property from turning into such as what’s happening in Haywood County,” said Young. “My point is, what do you need to make the camping ordinance prevent the greenway from turning into a 15-acre campground that turns into an unsightly, there’s a lot of undesirable activity, and it ties up our local resources. I think the intent here is to be able to prevent that from happening.”

Shearl argued that rather than make the penalty stricter for camping on the greenway, the county should work toward a solution for people who have nowhere else to go.

“My worry is if these people are camping on the greenway, no, I don’t think it's right but there again, I think we need to have a solution before we come up with a move to restrict it,” said Shearl. “Where are we going to put these people?”

Commissioner Danny Antoine agreed with Commissioner Young that prohibiting camping on the greenway and instituting a penalty for violating the ordinance could help prevent further problems from developing.

“I think the point is, this is kind of like preventative maintenance,” said Antoine. “What we don’t want to do is wait until it goes so far out of control that now you have a whole different issue on your hands.”

Commissioners Antoine, Gary Shields, Higdon and Young all voted to approve the measure while Commissioner Shearl voted against it.

“It’s not preventative maintenance,” said Shearl. “We have a problem that has started that should have been addressed before it became a problem. Now we have a problem and we have no solution other than to arrest these people, send them through the criminal court system, tying up the court system, tying up the sheriff’s department, tying up the jail, and any time that we identify a problem we need to address the problem and come up with a solution before we start adopting ordinance. That’s why I voted against it. I’m not at all saying that it’s ok for these people to use the greenway that are homeless; however, they are there and to criminalize these people is not a solution to this problem.”

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