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Sylva considers panhandling ordinance, again

The Town of Sylva does not currently have a panhandling ordinance. File photo The Town of Sylva does not currently have a panhandling ordinance. File photo

With three new members seated following November elections, the Sylva Town Council is once again considering an update to the Streets and Sidewalks section of its code of ordinances to include a section on panhandling. 

“We’re a tourist town; we don’t have any industry,” said Phillips. “Tourism is what we have. We want people to want to come back here. We want people to want to move here.” 

Last November, the board considered putting a panhandling ordinance in place but ultimately decided against it after a majority of the board and several members of the public spoke out in opposition to the measure.

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.”

The state 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.” 

Mayor Johnny Phillips presented the idea of a panhandling ordinance to the town board during its Jan. 11 meeting and made clear his support for the proposal. Phillips touted the progress he says he has seen in Asheville with a reduction in the number of people panhandling there and attributed that to the city’s panhandling ordinance.

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“What I’m asking for is a motion to instruct our staff to construct us a panhandling ordinance, somewhere along the lines of the way Asheville wrote theirs, so it fits our town the best,” said Philips. “I’d like for you to come back to us with an ordinance that we can consider and hold a public hearing on and hopefully something that we can pass that moves our town forward in the right direction.” 

Town Council Member Brad Waldrop was the first to voice his opposition to the possible panhandling ordinance.

“I think we need to be very careful not to get anywhere in the realm of criminalizing poverty,” said Waldrop. “People are panhandling and out asking for money, the vast majority of the time they’re doing so because they are in a situation of need, and I don’t want our town to be part of criminalizing that position.” 

Waldrop also voiced his concern that any panhandling ordinance not infringe on people’s right to free speech.

“There have been many panhandling ordinances that have been ruled illegal because they have been viewed as infringing on people’s First Amendment rights, so we’d have to be very careful not to do that,” Waldrop said. “I’m not convinced that anything can be passed that isn’t performative. I’ve not seen an ordinance, including Asheville’s, that seemed like it would have a tremendous effect on the amount of panhandling that we’re currently experiencing, or the nature of it.” 

Phillips claims that Sylva is getting more panhandlers in town than it used to because it is the only town in Western North Carolina without an ordinance that addresses panhandling. He said that Asheville’s ordinance is the “most forgiving,” and the one that had the most legal advice involved, which is why he suggested it to be the model for Sylva’s possible future ordinance.

Asheville’s code of ordinances addresses panhandling in two places — section 11-5. Public solicitation and begging regulated; and section 11-14. Solicitation from streets and median strips.

There are two zones of the city where panhandling is outlawed completely — a number of roads listed in the ordinance that are deemed to be “high traffic zones,” and anywhere within Biltmore Village Historic District. Panhandling is also prohibited on medians, in the street or on a roadside shoulder.

Otherwise, the ordinance lays out circumstances in which it is unlawful to panhandle. These include forcing oneself on another or accosting them; within 20 feet of a financial institution or ATM; within an outdoor dining area, or soliciting from anyone seated or working in an outdoor dining area; within 8 feet of a transit stop or bus station, or on a public bus; soliciting someone who is standing in line to enter a business; by touching someone without their consent; by blocking someone’s path, or blocking the entrance or exit to a business or vehicle; by using obscene or threatening language; by using a threatening gesture or action; after dark; while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Newly seated Council Member Mark Jones is also in support of an ordinance that addresses panhandling. He brought up the issue of safety for both motorists and panhandlers and noted that traffic would become even more dangerous once construction began on N.C. 107.

“When you have someone on the sidewalk of a busy road like 107, with inexperienced drivers coming from the schools, with other impatient drivers out there, then we’re gonna put all these public workers out there that’s gonna be working on the road, someone steps out next to the road and all of a sudden there’s a domino effect and a wreck,” Jones hypothesized. “How are the rest of us going to try to explain to someone that their child got killed because panhandlers stepped out to pick up five bucks and he don't want to work, he just wants the money.” 

Mayor Phillips provided a personal anecdote about someone knocking on his door at 7 a.m. wanting to be taken “to where the homeless are.” Phillips said that when he called the police to come and help the person, they left before the police could arrive.

“They didn’t want to talk to the police or let the police give them a ride to where they wanted to go,” said Phillips. “They’re starting to beat on people’s doors … mine’s one of them.”

Waldrop asked Phillips if he felt that an additional ordinance was needed to address that issue specifically, and Phillips said no.

“No, not to address that,” Phillips said. “But I think we’re starting to get more people that are not from here, they’re from wherever they used to be able to panhandle.” 

Council Member Natalie Newman pressed the board to consider what the purpose of such an ordinance would be if, in the end, people would still be able to panhandle.

“What is our goal as a board with the ordinance?” she asked.

According to Phillips, his goal with the ordinance is to regulate panhandling.

Like Newman, Waldrop also questioned the intent behind the ordinance.

“Is the undesirable behavior panhandling itself, or behaviors that some perceive common among panhandlers?” Waldrop asked. “I’m just hearing that we’re wanting to reduce the number of panhandlers, that doesn’t sound like that’s what that would do.”

Phillips brought up what he sees as another related issue, saying that ladies who used to get their morning exercise by walking on Main Street in Sylva early in the morning have stopped because homeless people are approaching them, and they are scared.

“Whether or not one of them would actually harm someone or not, the ladies that have lived here their whole life deserve to not be afraid to go walk on Main Street in Sylva,” Phillips said.

Jones took the issue of safety even further.

“I don’t think you’d like it too well, somebody walking up behind you at an ATM. I’m raised in the mountains, you walk up behind the wrong person at an ATM, Mr. Hatton’s gonna be getting a phone call because somebody may get hurt,” said Jones. “If you want to feel sorry for these people, feel sorry a little bit more about the concerns of the people that have these problems that could possibly hurt them. I mean, somebody walks up, jumps out of the bushes and hollers ‘give me two dollars,’ a lot of people carry concealed carry, men and women, someone gets shot real quick like.”

Ultimately, at the request of Council Member Mary Gelbaugh, the board voted on a motion to direct staff to develop a solicitation ordinance rather than a panhandling ordinance.

“I’m wondering if maybe we can make this request for staff to develop a proposed ordinance more about conduct or solicitation and not so much focusing on the panhandling element,” Gelbaugh said. “Because I think we all don’t want any of our citizens, rich or poor, to be harassed. It’s not a question of poverty or the rich. There’s a lot of mental health struggles right now and we need to give our police something tangible to work with, for harassment.” 

The board voted in favor of directing staff to develop a draft solicitation ordinance, with Waldrop the lone dissenting vote. The board will still have to discuss any ordinance that is presented, and a public hearing will have to be held before the ordinance can be voted on.

Following the full discussion Newman suggested that moving forward, the board be careful in how they talk about this issue.

“I just want to make sure that we do a good job of not dehumanizing people, because these are humans; people just like us. They are here in our town, whether they have a house or not, they’re here,” Newman said. “I personally don’t agree with, for the sake of tourism, hiding people or sticking people in a corner because they are unhoused or poor. And to me that’s what it sounds like when we bring tourism to the forefront of the purpose for this ordinance.” 

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