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Colorado Springs City Council passes Pedestrian Access Act

February 9, 2016 Updated: February 9, 2016 at 10:12 pm
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City officials are working on an ordinance to ban people from sitting or lying on sidewalks, planters or anywhere else not specifically designed to be sat upon downtown and in Old Colorado City. Outside the 711 convenience store, is a popular place for congregation at Tejon St. and E. Pikes Peak Ave. A group gathers and hangs out on the planters on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

An ordinance banning people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks or trails gained final approval by Colorado Springs City Council on Tuesday - just as other ordinances viewed as targeting homeless people were gutted. 

The final 6-3 vote of the watered-down sit-lie ordinance capped more than six months of contentious meetings and withering criticism from opponents. Enforcement will begin April 9 after a 60-day "education period," city officials announced.

The latest version carried a new name - the Pedestrian Access Act - and lighter penalties. It prohibits sitting, kneeling, reclining or lying on sidewalks and other rights-of-way during certain hours in parts of downtown and Old Colorado City.

Originally, anyone ticketed faced punishments of up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. Now, written warnings will be given before anyone is ticketed, after which people caught violating the ordinance face probation, a maximum $500 fine, or both.

Subsequent violations could mean a $500 fine, up to 90 days in jail, or both.

Still, the law garnered significant opposition Tuesday before City Council's decision, during which council members Jill Gaebler, Helen Collins and Andy Pico cast the dissenting votes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado strongly opposed the ordinance amid fears it would disproportionately affect homeless or impoverished people.

"As we have said repeatedly for months, there is no public safety justification for making it a crime to sit," said Alejandra Garza, an ACLU field director.

Two people chided the Act for going against the last words of the Pledge of Allegiance, "liberty and justice for all." The ordinance also does nothing to address a larger issue for people who are homeless: The city's lack of affordable housing, said Carrie Baatz, of People's Access to Homes.

"This decision today is defining for our city," Baatz said.

Council members Tom Strand and Keith King proposed the ordinance in August after business owners complained of people loitering downtown.

At Strand's request Tuesday, a city attorney offered the lone speech in favor of the law - reminding council members that the purpose of the law was increase safety and economic vitality.

"Every time that this type of ordinance has been challenged, as far as I can tell, it has been upheld," the attorney, Anne Turner, told City Council.

After the vote, Strand said residents had plenty of chances to voice concerns about the law.

"We're trying to do what we think is best for the majority of the almost half-million people of this community that at least may want to come downtown or Old Colorado City," Strand said after the meeting.

The approval came mere minutes before City Council voted to gut solicitation ordinances that came under fire by the ACLU for violating the First Amendment rights of homeless and impoverished people.

In September, the ACLU accused the city of using panhandling ordinances against impoverished people who had simply been exercising their right to free speech.

City Attorney Wynetta Massey later told police to stop enforcing certain solicitation ordinances. In October, she announced the dismissals of more than 300 active cases.

During a lunch meeting Tuesday, Mayor John Suthers implored City Council during a lunch meeting to pass ordinances that repealed large sections of the law.

"If we retain those provisions, people are cited for them, I think we've got some liability issues," Suthers said.

Between votes, Council member Don Knight pointed out the irony of City Council standing up to the ACLU to pass the sit-lie ordinance, only to back down on the solicitation ordinances.

He called it "a possibility" that the sit-lie ordinance would face legal challenges and that it could be revisited by City Council in the future. But he defended approving it Tuesday.

"It's worth running the risk," Knight said.

Knight sought to make a last-minute change to the solicitation ordinance, but it did not affect what parts of the laws would be changed, Massey said. Rather, Knight's suggestion simply added language further justifying the repeals, she said.

Still, the scaled-back solicitation ordinances might resurface as an issue later this year.

Colorado Springs police were told to track instances where public safety is affected by people soliciting in certain areas, such as parking garages, and report back to City Council in the spring.

Depending on that information, city officials may draft an ordinance to replace sections of the repealed solicitation law, said Jeff Greene, Suthers' chief of staff.

Sitting on a downtown planter, Seth Martin, 36, said Tuesday's Pedestrian Access Act vote came as no surprise.

Homeless off and on for 20 years, Martin sat next to a sign reading "ANYTHING HELPS. THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS." He said he still planned to spend time downtown - but other homeless people may decide differently.

"They'll just go somewhere else ... causing problems other places," Martin said. Across the street, two women sat on another planter and chided City Council's effort to pass the law.

"That means wherever you go, you'll be ticketed," said Christine, 29. She declined to give her last name.

When asked if the ordinance would keep her from coming downtown, she balked.

"This is where I live," she said.

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Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter: @jakobrodgers

Facebook: Jakob Rodgers

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