Top, Elvira Sweetwater, a Navajo, performs with hoops during a July 12 appearance in downtown Manitou Springs. She and her husband, Kenny Sweetwater, their daughter, Sunshine Sweetwater, and their friend Sam Walks Gently perform Native American dances at noon, 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays-Wednesdays between Patsy’s and the Manitou Penny Arcade. Second from top, Sam Walks Gently, of the Southern Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache tribes, performs a traditional dance. Above, Elvira Sweetwater, prepares to perform.
Photos by Rhonda Van Pelt
Manitou Springs City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday that prohibits sitting, kneeling or lying down in public rights-of-way in the downtown area.
The ordinance also forbids placing items for sale or display on public rights-of-way and on benches, chairs or other public seating areas within rights-of-way.
The new ordinance repeals a section of the city’s municipal code dealing with panhandling. Chapter 5.16 of the code contained provisions similar to a Grand Junction ordinance that was overturned by the U.S. District Court.
“In an effort to balance the rights of all people in Manitou Springs and create as much public safety as humanly possible, we felt this ordinance was important to add to the downtown area,” Mayor Nicole Nicoletta said.
The preamble to the ordinance states that its purpose is to ensure safe passage of vehicles and pedestrians by preventing obstructions.
Besides threatening public safety, the presence of people sitting, lying or displaying items on public rights-of-way “creates a sense of public disorder and deters people from staying, shopping and visiting,” the ordinance states.
The ordinance defines a public right-of-way as a street, sidewalk or other property used for pedestrian, recreational or vehicular traffic.
It will be effective along Manitou Avenue from Tubby’s to the Fire Station, Ruxton Avenue west past Maple Avenue, Cañon Avenue past Grand Avenue and all of Park Avenue.
The ordinance makes sitting, lying down and display of goods unlawful between 6 and 10 p.m. daily and from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
The measure lists several exceptions that would not be considered violations, including medical emergencies, medically confirmed disabilities and sitting or kneeling during attendance at a parade, festival or other special event the city has permitted or licensed.
It does not prohibit sitting on walls such as those outside Soda Springs Park. Placing a backpack or purse on the pavement also is allowed under the ordinance.
Council unanimously passed the ordinance late in Tuesday’s meeting after consulting with City Attorney Jeff Parker in an executive session.
A public hearing and second reading will be held at the Aug. 2 Council meeting.
There was little discussion about the measure at Tuesday’s meeting, but Nicoletta referred to it during a State of the City meeting Saturday, July 16, at City Hall.
“It’s not about me or Council being against homelessness,” Nicoletta said at that meeting. “This is managing how we’re all living in the community together. We can regulate how you manage the space.”
Saturday’s discussion addressed related safety issues including activity in homeless camps and Soda Springs Park.
Several attendees said they’re concerned about fire danger from campfires in homeless camps that have proliferated in the hills around Manitou.
“When they are leaving town, they are going into the hills above our homes,” Della Lane said. “A lot of us believe drugs are being sold on Red Mountain. Walking up the trails every morning used to be our great love. Now we don’t feel safe, and we’re worried about fires.”
Police Chief Joe Ribeiro said a new initiative regarding homeless camps began Thursday, July 14, called LEEP (Locate, Enforce, Eradicate and Prevent).
“Five officers from Manitou and two deputies from El Paso County rode ATVs and hiked into the hills to try and locate camps,” Ribeiro said.
Ribeiro told Council on Tuesday that the officers worked all day and located 18 camps. There were few people in the camps, but they found “material of a disturbing nature, including human waste and garbage.”
At Saturday’s meeting, he urged citizens to augment the official effort by capturing GPS coordinates of homeless camps they encounter and sharing them with the Police Department. Reports can be made by email or by calling the nonemergency dispatch number, 390-5555.
The next step is enforcement, which will take place early in the morning.
“If the camps are on private land, we can charge people with trespass,” Ribeiro said. “If they are on city land, we already have the authority to write tickets. If we don’t find people in the camps, we leave a letter telling them what the regulations are.”
Ribeiro said volunteers and paid contractors would be used in the eradication phase, during which the camps would be cleaned up.
“That could take a bit of time,” he said. “We’re in the early phases of getting involved and evaluating the risk to our employees. They’re encountering biohazards. We have to evaluate whether that requires special training.”
During the final phase of the operation, “we’ll be patrolling and looking to you to help try and identify these camps before they become a problem.”
Fire Chief John Forsett said Saturday that the Fire Department has experienced an increase in alarms and incidents involving the transient population.
“We do spend a lot of time in Soda Springs Park and that general area, and also the Intemann Trail and up on Red Mountain,” Forsett said.
Nicoletta said that Council’s action to fence off the Soda Springs Park pavilion has been criticized, “but we saw a difference overnight. It was chill; the vibe was different. Something had to shift a little bit, and we can continue to pursue that. If we don’t take action, it’s going to get worse.”
The fencing came up again at Tuesday’s Council meeting.
Interim Public Services Director Shelley Cobau suggested a request for proposals “to fabricate a permanent but pleasing solution” that would allow the city to close the pavilion when necessary.
Most councilors said they favored the idea, but Councilor Becky Elder disagreed.
“I don’t think we should close the pavilion,” Elder said. “It doesn’t necessarily solve that problem, just pushes it somewhere else.”
Ribeiro was asked Saturday whether the police department has the budget and resources to enforce new and existing ordinances.
Although the department is now at full staff with 16 full-time officers including himself, Ribeiro said two of the officers were undergoing three to four months of training before they go on duty and another officer is on medical leave.
“My research shows that we’re still under water,” he said.
He plans to ask Council for a midyear budget allocation to allow for more overtime.
“Yes, we have enough money,” Nicoletta said. “This is important enough that, yes, we’ll figure it out.”