A potential city ordinance could prohibit everyone from sitting or lying down on city sidewalks, but advocates worry it targets the poor.
The law could improve safety downtown, especially for people with strollers and senior citizens, Mayor Sweetie Marbury said.
“You don’t want to step over people. It feels very dangerous to me,” she said.
Durango’s law could be similar to an ordinance passed in Tempe, Arizona, and ordinances in Denver and Colorado Springs that prohibit sitting or lying on public sidewalks, Durango City Attorney Dirk Nelson said.
In Tempe, everyone is prohibited from sitting or lying down on a blanket, chair, stool or other object not permanently attached to the ground. The law makes exceptions for those having a medical emergency, those using a wheelchair, waiting for transportation or attending public events, such as a parade. Tempe’s law also allows people to use seating supplied by a business or the city. Exceptions to the sit and lie rules are common across many ordinances, Nelson said.
Laws governing sitting and lying on the sidewalk have been held up in court because they apply to everyone and they do not single out a group of people, he said.
The idea to introduce the law in Durango was generated during a town hall meeting about a year ago, said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District.
The city prohibits dog bowls and signs from obstructing the sidewalk, and he said he doesn’t think people should be allowed to obstruct them either. The law might also help prevent sidewalk congestion in the summer, he said.
BID is encouraging its business representatives to speak for the ordinance during a meeting Wednesday.
Some homeless advocates question the intent of the proposed law and whether it might violate the rights of those on the street.
“This is a street-sweeping ordinance designed to target a particular group of people,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union.
He questioned the logic of claiming that sitting on the sidewalk is unsafe and the origin of the argument.
“They are really betraying their own fears of people who are so poor and so marginalized that they have to ask for charity in a public place,” he said.
Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, a Durango nonprofit focused on homelessness, is worried that the potential law criminalizes homelessness and does not address its root causes.
The Tempe ordinance lists a $100 fine for sitting or lying on the sidewalk.
A potential penalty for the Durango law has not been discussed, Nelson said.
Many ordinances in town do not have a specific penalty attached to them; instead, a municipal judge decides the appropriate repercussions. If approved, the city would likely educate the public about the law before enforcing it, and there likely wouldn’t be a large number of tickets written right away, Nelson said.