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Law to keep people off dangerous Colorado Springs medians wins unanimous approval

January 24, 2017 Updated: January 25, 2017 at 7:35 am
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Hope Jones panhandles Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, on the narrow median at 31st and Colorado Avenue in Colorado Springs. Jones, who has been at the corner for about a year, said she feels safe because she sit near the crosswalk but has seen some crazy driving at the corner. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The Colorado Springs City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ban pedestrians from narrow medians on busy streets with fast traffic, citing public safety concerns.

An activist was escorted out of the meeting Tuesday after an emotional outburst just before the final tally.

But city officials were eager to address what most recognize as a safety issue, as panhandlers teeter atop skinny, peaked or domed medians alongside heavy, fast-moving traffic.

Advocates for homeless people had testified at length, urging the council to reduce the penalties of a maximum $500 fine, probation or both.

They suggested a warning be issued on the first offense and the fine be reduced to $50 - still an impossible amount for a homeless person to pay, the speakers noted.

The calm suddenly was shattered after two motions to amend the ordinance failed on 6-3 votes.

"Stop!" screamed Trygve Bundgaard, founder and co-director of the Coalition for Compassion and Action.

A security guard quickly escorted him from the premises.

"I just snapped," Bundgaard said later, lamenting the fact that a warning won't be issued before offenders are cited.

Except for him and three fellow activists who were arrested intentionally, the Pedestrian Access Act passed last year has resulted in no citations because police issue warnings first, Bundgaard noted.

The new ordinance outlaws use of narrow medians on streets used by 25,000 or more vehicles a day and with posted speeds of 30 mph or higher.

The median on such streets must be at least 4 feet in diameter and have a grade of 8 percent or less to qualify for pedestrian use, the law says.

But people can use any median where the speed is lower and the traffic isn't heavy, said Senior City Attorney Anne Turner.

Downtown streets won't be affected, for example, because most have speed limits of 25 mph.

Bundgaard acknowledged that panhandlers can be at risk when standing in a confined space next to heavy traffic.

But he and others fear that the law will target poor people.

"You can't legislate away the impoverished," Bundgaard told the council earlier. "Why continue to waste precious taxpayer resources in targeting the most marginalized in our city? The proposed ordinance is overly broad and must be rewritten or it will join sit-lie (the Pedestrian Access Act) as another assault on rights of the people of Colorado Springs."

"It sounds like there were some commonsense proposals to reduce the harshness of the measure, and it's unfortunate they were rejected," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

"We know this ordinance will be enforced against poor, homeless people asking for charity. So why not say a warning will be given first? Why not cap the fine to an amount someone could pay?" Silverstein asked.

The law also will apply to people waving political signs, firefighters soliciting for charities, newspaper vendors and anyone else, Turner and other city officials have emphasized.

Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler moved that a 60-day education period be implemented before the law takes effect. That approach was used with the Pedestrian Access Act.

Her motion failed on a 6-3 vote, with Councilmen Bill Murray and Larry Bagley backing her idea.

Turner said police will identify troublesome medians gradually, and traffic engineers then will post signs on them, telling people to stay off. So enforcement of the ordinance will be rolled out gradually too, as the signs are posted.

Murray then moved for a $50 maximum fine "to be reasonable, practical and compassionate." That, too, failed by 6-3, with Gaebler and Councilman Tom Strand supporting Murray.

The entire council then voted to enact the ordinance.

The law comes a year after the city was forced to repeal panhandling ordinances and eliminate its so-called debtors prisons, created when panhandlers working streets and medians couldn't pay fines and were jailed instead.

The ACLU challenged those laws and actions in October 2015, and the city agreed last May to stop converting fines into jail time and stop jailing people for offenses that don't stipulate jail. The city further agreed to a $103,000 settlement to repay victims.

The new ordinance might avoid any ACLU challenge, though, because it focuses strictly on safety issues.

Mayor John Suthers proposed the law in October, noting that pedestrians on narrow, peaked medians jeopardize their lives and distract drivers. Several council members reported seeing similar dangerous behavior, and enthusiasm for the proposed law blossomed.

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