After a three-hour hearing, the Burlington City Council's Ordinance Committee shelved plans to ban sitting or lying down on select downtown city sidewalks.
More than 50 people packed a City Hall conference room — almost double its legal capacity according to the city's fire code — to weigh in on the proposal. The three-member committee heard from Police Chief Michael Schirling, several business owners, homeless youth and residents.
In the end, the committee agreed unanimously to craft a resolution asking the full City Council to have the police department educate people about the need to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians, wheelchairs and strollers.
The city already has an ordinance on the books that makes it illegal to fully block city sidewalks. That ordinance, combined with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements to maintain at least a five feet right-of-way, should be enough for police to keep a pedestrian route clutter-free of clutter on the sidewalks that feed into the Church Street Marketplace.
If this education effort fails?
"Our intent is to first try and if that fails we're back to a more restrictive approach," said Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), and a committee member.
Bushor said the police should engage in a pilot education project through the summer, and the ordinance committee — and the council — could reconsider the issue in the fall.
"I'm not one to make up new rules unless there is a genuine need for them, and I'm not convinced there is a need for this ordinance and there is a problem for which this ordinance is a solution," said Councilor Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2), a member of the ordinance committee.
Committee Chairwoman Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) said if the committee were to craft a more punitive ordinance that it would bring various stakeholders — and the public — together for a series of hearings on any proposal.
If Wednesday night's meeting is an indication, there is a strong interest in the Queen City about the issue.
Those in attendance were overwhelmingly opposed to crafting an ordinance, and wondered why city officials couldn't take a less heavy-handed approach than one of education. If the issue is ensuring the right-of-way is cleared, why not simply focus on that?
Schirling said the ordinance on the books that makes it illegal to block a sidewalk is designed to stop people from fully blocking a sidewalk — an issue that occurs in more residential neighborhoods. Downtown, the issue is partial blockage of the right-of-way.
The department has had this six-foot ordinance proposal on its to-do list since 2008, when police began receiving complaints from parents, the elderly and observing more people sitting or lying down on the sidewalks.
"This ordinance does not relate to Church Street and is not in reaction to Phoenix House or other issues in the downtown and doesn't have anything to do with panhandling," said Schirling. In fact, the city has an ordinance to deal with aggressive panhandling.
In recent weeks, Schirling noted, police officers along with summertime parks and recreation patrols have been asking people not to block the sidewalks downtown — both on Church Street and on its feeder streets. That effort appears to be working, said Schirling.
Several business owners, including Mark Sherman of Outdoor Gear Exchange and Nancy Kirby of Champlain Leather, said they have also engaged with loiterers and asked them to move. In most cases, it's worked. Kirby said she's even hired some of them to help clean up the ally near her store, which has also become a problematic hang-out.
"These kids who make money [panhandling] downtown are spending money, too," said Kirby. "They are paying it forward, and shouldn't we be doing that here? Isn't that what it's all about — humanity? We've simply asked them to just clean up after yourself, and its working. I've seen less trash in past six months. All we have to do is communicate with these people."
Kirby urged the committee, and Schirling, to engage people in a dialogue first — either through one-on-one contact or posting signs — before resorting to issuing tickets.
Another business owner said there's a reason it's called a sidewalk and not a "side-sit." She said she often has to ask people to move away from the front of her business and it becomes a hassle when people continue to sit in front of her shop.
"I think we're talking about having some respect on both sides," said Kent Wood of Fremeau Jewelers.
The proposed ban would have affected Pearl, Cherry, Bank, College and Main Streets between South Winooski Avenue and St. Paul Street. It would have created a six-foot pedestrian right-of-way from the edge of a building. The Church Street Marketplace already has a nine-foot ban in place.
Numerous attendees said the proposed ordinance seemed to target the homeless or those in need of social services, while allowing exemptions for businesses to have signs or sidewalk tables.
"I'm worried on a different level and when the city council created a task force to talk about the problems created by unemployment and cuts to human services, all I can say is that in this economy there will be a lot more of these problems and probably a lot more people in need of help, and are we really just going to legislate against those people and their behavior or help them," said Sandy Baird, a former state legislator and professor at Burlington College.
Others questioned whether the ordinance would stretch the police department's resources.
"In terms of police resources, I've heard more concern about theft and people concerned about walking down streets in their neighborhoods in the Old North End, and I am concerned that if you pass this ordinance it would put more and more resources into the downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods," said Maxwell Tracy, who ran unsuccessfully for city council in Ward 2.
Schirling said despite the ordinance's appearance, he is not interesting in criminalizing more behavior. In fact, he said the goal all along was to put something on the books that allowed his officers to educate peopl, not ticket them.
"We are desperately trying to divert people away from the criminal justice system," said Schirling. "What we're trying to create are alternatives not create more investigations for ourselves."