Tonight, Asheville City Council will vote on a proposal that would allow protest encampments — like the one Occupy Asheville members have established — in front of City Hall as long as individual campers received permits first. The ordinance would also allow demonstrations after the 10 p.m. park curfew in front of the Vance Monument.
“The regulations do not provide for unlimited use of city property, but they leave open ample alternative means of expression, including expressive conduct such as overnight camping,” the staff report reads.
The proposal allows individual campers to get 14-day permits for around $18, with an additional charge of $3.30 per porta-john if the group decides to set one up. In an example used in the staff report, a permit for a camp with two porta-johns would cost $24.60 per camper.
The permits would require campers to keep the space clean and avoid safety hazards. It allows permits to be renewed once (meaning that a camp could last 28 days maximum), doesn’t allow them to be renewed at all if another group has permits for the site pending and limits the amount of permits one camper can get in the course of a year to four. The intent, according to the staff report, is to make sure more than one group can use the space and that the grounds are properly maintained.
The ordinance also designates the current Occupy Asheville camp site part of Pack Square Park, but adds that both it and the area just in front of Vance Monument are “public forums” where protest can occur regardless of the curfew in the rest of the park. On Nov. 2, 24 Occupy Asheville protesters were arrested in front of the monument for curfew violations.
The Occupy Asheville camp, set up in early December, is on a small swath of land in front of City Hall. Under the new proposal, this would be the only site for permitted camping.
Right now, the camps falls into a “legal gray area” according to City Attorney Bob Oast. While city property, it isn’t technically part of the park, and not subject to the area’s standard curfew. Citing complaints from city employees, passerby and surrounding business owners about conditions at the camp, city staff drafted up an ordinance banning camping, storage and erecting enclosed structures on city property, and brought it to the Dec. 13 Council meeting.
But Council balked, with most members concerned that the prohibitions hadn’t gone through Council’s standard committee process. The proposals went to the Public Safety Committee on Jan. 3.
However, instead of sending the bans back to Council, the committee directed staff to craft a policy allowing for camping permits, and Council will vote on that proposal tonight.
The camp has also been a contentious issue within the local Occupy movement as well, with some asserting that problems including belligerent drunks and the elements mean that it takes up resources that could be better used elsewhere. Others said conditions at the site are steadily improving and that it provides an important public presence for the protesters. The debate has continued since early December without a clear consensus emerging, and the camp remains.