Archived News

Sylva passes panhandling ordinance

The Town of Sylva now has a solicitation ordinance. A Shot Above photo The Town of Sylva now has a solicitation ordinance. A Shot Above photo

The Town of Sylva passed an ordinance addressing panhandling last week by a narrow margin after extensive and contentious discussion on the topic. 

“I can’t vote for an ordinance that is based on hatred and disgust for people who are trying to make a living and live in this town,” said Natalie Newman, one of two council members opposed to the ordinance.

The board held a public hearing on the topic during the Feb. 8 board meeting during which two members of the public voiced their opinion, one in favor of the ordinance and another against.

This was the second time in just over a year that the board had considered such an ordinance. In November 2022 it considered a proposal to address panhandling, but ultimately decided against it after a majority of the board and several members of the public spoke out in opposition to the measure.

After his election to the board in November, Mayor Johnny Phillips brought the topic of panhandling back before the board this January and directed staff to create a draft ordinance for review.

The ordinance passed by a split vote with Mary Gelbaugh joining new council members Mark Jones and Blitz Estridge to vote in favor, and council members Brad Waldrop and Natalie Newman voting against. While the mayor may add items to the agenda and participate in discussion on a topic, he does not have a vote on regular agenda items.

Related Items

Waldrop primarily voiced concern over the ways that the ordinance could be inadvertently infringing on a person’s right to free speech.

“I don’t believe the ordinance, as written, is constitutional,” said Waldrop. “You cannot be restricting someone’s speech based on what they’re saying. And when I read this ordinance, that’s pretty much precisely what it’s doing, saying you can’t say these things in these locations.” 

Waldrop argued that because the ordinance is only restricting someone from saying specific things, like asking for money, in certain places, this constitutes regulating the content of someone’s speech. Someone could stand within 20 feet of an operating business, or an ATM, and say anything they want, except ask for money, Waldrop noted.

“I believe that is a content-based restriction of someone’s speech as that applies to the first amendment,” said Waldrop. “So, I do not believe that the ordinance as written is constitutional.” 

Newman and Waldrop both questioned whether this ordinance actually addresses the issues their fellow board members raised. Newman pointed out that with the ordinance in place, people would still be allowed to panhandle.

“I am really disgusted at the way we have discussed unhoused people in this community, and I can’t vote for [the ordinance]. I can’t vote for it, and I will not vote for it,” said Newman. “If we had approached this in a different way and it had been about the behaviors, and about solicitation and not just ‘we don’t want to see poor people,’ then you’d have me on board. That’s not what we’re talking about here. And we can pretend like we’re talking about something different, but we’re not.” 

“If there is specific behavior that we want to curtail, then we should consider ordinances that address that specific behavior. Whereas, saying that someone can’t basically say I need money in certain locations, I believe that is a content-based restriction of speech,” Waldrop said. “Just saying … that you need money, is not a public safety risk, in my opinion.” 

Phillips argued that while the ordinance may not address all panhandling, it does deal specifically with the issue of people asking for money within close range of an ATM. With the new law, if Chief of Police Chris Hatton or his officers respond to a call of someone asking for money within 20 feet of an ATM, they can tell that person that this ordinance exists, and it is illegal for them to ask for money in that area.

“Until someone’s done something to pose a safety risk, I don’t believe that there should be an ordinance addressing their behavior,” said Waldrop. “Because someone panhandles, to me it doesn’t represent a safety risk. I understand that other things happen and sometimes accompany that behavior, but at face value, standing saying ‘I need money’ is not criminal, should not be criminal.” 

Gelbaugh asked Hatton whether the ordinance would be another tool for officers or a pain. Hatton told the board that the ordinance will not apply to a lot of situations in the town. 

“For us, it will be used as a deterrent,” said Hatton. “We say, there’s a rule here, you can’t do this. You can do this, but you can’t do that.” 

Mark Jones again brought up what he sees as safety concerns with panhandlers and the road construction that is planned for N.C. 107. He has previously expressed the view that panhandlers on N.C. 107 pose a safety risk to themselves and others.

The issue of women being scared to walk on Main Street for morning exercise was brought up again, something Phillips pointed out in previous discussions. However, board members agreed that this ordinance would not solve or even address that issue.

Gelbaugh asked Jones to amend his motion for an opportunity to have further discussion on the issue. However, Jones and Phillips both said there had been enough conversation and wished to move forward with the motion to approve the ordinance. Estridge did not voice his opinion on the issue one way or the other but voted in favor of the ordinance.

Sylva did not previously have a panhandling ordinance, but there are some stipulations already laid out in state law about loitering and soliciting on roadways. 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.” 

The approved ordinance, entitled “public solicitation and begging upon the streets and sidewalks regulated,” will amend section 30 of Sylva’s code of ordinances that addresses streets and sidewalks.

It prohibits anyone from soliciting or begging by accosting another, or forcing oneself upon the company of another; within 20 feet of any financial institution; 10 feet of any bus stop or other transportation hub; 20 feet of any commercial establishment that is open for business; while the person being solicited is standing in line waiting to be admitted to a commercial establishment; by touching the person being solicited without that person’s consent; by blocking the path of a person being solicited or blocking the entrance or exit to any building or vehicle; following the person who has been solicited after that person has declined the request or walked away; by or with the use of threatening, profane or abusive language, during the solicitation or following an unsuccessful solicitation; by or with the use of any gesture or act intended to cause a reasonable person to be fearful of the solicitor or feel compelled to accede to the solicitation; and during nighttime hours from dusk to dawn.

As already outlined in North Carolina General Statutes, the ordinance states it is unlawful to solicit or beg while intoxicated, by using false or misleading information, or by indicating that the solicitor or any member of their family suffers from a physical or mental disability when such information is false.

Violation of the ordinance is punishable by a $50 fine. It is a civil ordinance, so there is no possibility of arrest if a person is only in violation of this ordinance. Appeals or protests of the fine can be made in writing or in person within 30 days of issuance to the Sylva police chief, who shall have full authority to decide and render a decision. Further appeal of the decision by the police chief shall be made to the town manager, who shall have final authority over the matter.

Hatton expressed his intent to use the ordinance as a tool to inform people of the ways they can and cannot solicit in Sylva, and not as a tool to fine people who do not have enough money to get by in the first place. However, Newman brought up the concern that this ordinance will outlive Hatton and could be implemented and used in different ways by future police forces.

“We need to make sure that we’re not passing ordinances just for this board or this police chief or this town manager, and for the people that are here now. If we pass this ordinance and Chief Hatton’s not here tomorrow and we get another chief in there and he enforces this based on however he interprets it, do we end up sued because we’re arresting people just simply because they’re panhandling? I think this opens us up for a lot of issues,” said Newman. “We should look at this not just for what we see today, but for the future as well. I don’t want to pass an ordinance that could be misconstrued by future boards or by future police chiefs or by their officers.” 

Hatton agreed with Newman that things could change with another police chief.

“We work hard to treat people as good as we can treat them and still do our jobs. A different police chief, a different time, could be different,” said Hatton. “But I can tell you with my leadership how we’re going to do it. With ordinances, it’s an educational thing, almost always.”  

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.