Nevada City postpones decisions on panhandling, smoking areas | TheUnion.com

Nevada City postpones decisions on panhandling, smoking areas

Nevada City's leaders have struggled for years to manage pesky quality of life issues such as panhandling and people smoking in its historic downtown.

Tuesday night, they punted, taking no action either on an ordinance that would cite "aggressive" panhandlers, or on a proposed pilot project that would create designated smoking areas within the downtown core.

The panhandling ordinance was initially broached in September by Police Chief James Leal, who said his department has received reports of panhandlers going so far as to chase people, physically grab them or reach into their vehicles.

The proposed ordinance would ban unlawful panhandling to include causing the victim to fear bodily harm, approaching a vehicle by walking into the road, knocking on a window or reaching into a vehicle, touching a person without consent, blocking a person from leaving, using violent or threatening gestures, or using profane, offensive or abusive language. The offense would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $500, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months.

The ordinance got an OK from the city council at its first reading, but ran into snags over possible legal challenges.

City Attorney Hal DeGraw told the council members Tuesday he believes the city is allowed to regulate that conduct, but that he wanted time to review documents provided by homeless advocate Pauli Halstead and local attorney Stephen Greenberg.

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According to Greenberg, aggressive panhandling ordinances have been ruled illegal in many jurisdictions.

"Yours is virtually identical to the Worcester (Massachusetts) ordinance that was tossed out a few years ago, with $500,000 awarded to the ACLU," he said.

The problem, Greenberg said, is that the city wants to regulate aggressive panhandling, but defines behaviors as unlawful when accompanied by panhandling.

"What makes it illegal is asking for money," he said. "But that is protected speech."

During public comment, local architect Charles Durrett asked how far the council is willing to go to "whitewash" the town.

"It's a slippery slope," he said. "It's too easy to discriminate against the homeless, to discriminate against youth."

Council member Duane Strawser noted the ordinance was proposed due to complaints from residents, adding it might be difficult to come up with something that won't be challenged.

DeGraw said if he felt it necessary to make changes to the ordinance, it would have to come back for a first reading. Otherwise, the ordinance will return to the council at its next meeting for a second reading.

Smoking pilot project gets thumbs-down

Pushback from the community derailed a pilot project that would create designated smoking areas within the historic downtown.

A similar project was OK'd in 2016 that would have tested out a designated area at the Commercial Street parking lot, but stalled out. The concept was revamped after the city continued to receive regular complaints about littering of cigarettes and public smoking, City Manager Catrina Olson told the council in October.

Nevada City Police Chief James Leal, Lt. Chad Ellis and City Engineer Bryan McAlister picked several possible locations for designated smoking areas — the far back corner of Robinson Plaza against a fence above the freeway, and the back corner of the Spring Street and Commercial Street parking lots — that would be marked with signage.

They proposed a pilot program that would run for six months. Many of the smoking scofflaws are workers from downtown businesses on their smoke breaks, said Ellis, adding the pilot program would enable the city to achieve compliance with its no-smoking rule.

The Commercial Street parking lot was the location of a previous, failed experiment, said one neighbor.

"We tried this before," she said, reminding the council the hangout spot drew noise, drugs, alcohol, fights and vandalism. "The experiment did not last very long."

"It was a complete mess," agreed council member Reinette Senum.

Others who spoke had issues with the locations of the designated areas, and with the concept of enabling smoking in a no-smoking zone.

Strawser suggested city staff go back to the drawing board and come up with different solutions.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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