Durango City Council supported a new ordinance during a work session Tuesday night that would prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks or in alleys downtown.
The proposal has been controversial recently, but the council was united in its support. The four councilors present said they want to improve safety downtown.
“I think this is a step that is reasonable for us to take,” Councilor Dick White said. But it will also require enforcement and education, he said.
“I’m not excessively hopeful this ordinance will make a sea change,” he said.
Councilor Melissa Youssef said the new ordinance would give police a tool to keep streets safe and to ensure downtown Durango is welcoming to tourists.
“I am under the assumption it would protect our economic viability,” she said.
Mayor Sweetie Marbury encouraged staff members to accelerate the process for adopting the ordinance, and the group discussed a schedule that would allow the new law to take effect in June. She said she was particularly concerned about the obstruction those sitting or lying on the sidewalk pose to seniors and people with baby strollers.
Councilors also provided City Attorney Dirk Nelson direction on some details they would like in the ordinance.
Sitting and lying on the sidewalk could be prohibited from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot to 14th Street and from Narrow Gauge Avenue to the alley east of Main Avenue. It could also be prohibited on East Second Avenue from Seventh to Ninth streets.
Councilors agreed, if passed, the ordinance would be in effect from 7 a.m. until 2:30 a.m. to help protect those who work late downtown.
Nelson encouraged councilors to narrow a ban on sitting and lying so it would address sidewalk congestion.
“I think it’s hard to support a real safety issue 24/7,” he said.
Councilors also supported exceptions for those with medical issues, children in strollers and those watching parades or attending other public events, such as Taste of Durango. Another exception would be sitting at outdoor bistros and public benches.
The law would be modeled on ordinances in effect in Tempe, Arizona, and Seattle that have held up in federal court because they apply to everyone, Nelson said.
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, said Durango’s proposed law mirrors efforts in other cities to clear out panhandlers, and he questioned whether the ordinance would address a true safety issue.
“Sitting is a harmless behavior. It is not a crime,” he said in an interview last week. Panhandling is also protected by the First Amendment.
The ACLU sent a letter to the city in 2014 informing it that an ordinance prohibiting loitering for purposes of begging violated freedom of speech rights. After that, panhandling became more visible downtown.
Since then, the city has adopted an ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling. For example, panhandlers are prohibited from touching anyone, following anyone, speaking fighting words and blocking someone’s way. The city also forbids obstructing the sidewalk, Nelson said.
City Council may hold a public hearing on the sit-lie ordinance on May 15.