Panhandling ordinance amendments pass first Council vote

NEW AMENDMENTS: City Attorney Brad Branham discusses how new amendments to the panhandling ordinance are needed to remain compliant with existing federal laws. Photo by Chase Davis

City Council approved two technical amendments to Asheville’s panhandling ordinance at its Aug. 22 meeting. The first amendment added new language specifying that solicitors must be at least 8 feet away from “transit stops” (such as bus stops or busy medians) as well as “individuals who have made a negative response” to their solicitation attempts. The second amendment provided an exception to the existing ordinance that exempts persons who are soliciting from family members and mutual acquaintances.

The vote was the first reading of the proposed change, drawing 26 speakers, which entailed two hours of public comment. It passed 6-1, with Council member Kim Roney as the single opposing vote.

City Attorney Brad Branham said the technical amendments were needed to remain compliant with existing federal laws and were not intended to expand any existing regulations or penalties.

“I feel really strongly that the 8-foot addition is an expansion of the language that was not existing in the ordinance before,” Roney said in response to Branham. “Expanding this ordinance not only distracts from the very important work we need to do to address the issue [of] homelessness, but it still doesn’t meet the issue and instead creates new problems.”

That sentiment was echoed throughout public comment. Asheville-based lawyer and activist Ben Scales argued that the technical amendments expanded the ordinance and created issues concerning its enforceability.

“These changes are more than just technical amendments, and they will increase the burden on our already understaffed, underpaid and definitely underappreciated police force,” Scales said. “The 8-foot rule would not be admissible in court. …There will always be reasonable doubt as to whether a violation is actually 8 feet.”

Several community members also expressed concern over the new rules concerning family and mutual acquaintances, noting potential ambiguities.

“Poverty breeds desperation, and the proposal in front of you addresses the symptoms, not the cause,” said public commenter Eleanor Richards. “To me, every poor person in this town and elsewhere is a part of my family, so if I were to be arrested for giving food or money to a homeless person, you would be in violation of your own ordinance.”

While the majority of the speakers opposed the ordinance changes, several speakers supported it, including members of the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety.

Sheila Surrett, a member of the organization, brought a slideshow featuring images of homeless people downtown, sitting on sidewalks, standing on medians and speaking with customers at outdoor restaurants. Surrett asserted that panhandling has “torn up our tourism.” She also stated that police officers should be paid more to address the issues caused by some of the homeless population.

The city’s panhandling laws were previously discussed during a July 25, Environment and Safety Committee meeting. Council members Maggie Ullman, Sandra Kilgore and Sheneika Smith are part of the three-member committee. At the meeting, members proposed additional, more substantive amendments, including regulations around drivers giving money and other resources to panhandlers.

The additional amendments are still being discussed and will be considered again by the committee on Tuesday, Sept. 26. City Council is expected to address these additions during its Tuesday, Oct. 10, meeting. Ullman said while it’s clear people are divided on how to address the ordinance, they all agreed that “we need to band together to address root causes.”

She also requested that the proposal to restrict a driver’s ability to give to a panhandler be “taken off the table.”

“What I’m deeply understanding through lots of conversations is that charity is intensely personal and spiritual and religious for many,” Ullman said. “And I don’t see that the government intervening in that individual’s choice of charity is in our best interest. I think it will harm more than help.”

Read the revised ordinance at

In other news

Council also received an update on the Complete Streets policy, a long-term capital improvement project set to connect existing bike lanes and greenways in the downtown area. As a part of the proposed project, existing parking on main thoroughfares such as Patton and Biltmore avenues would be removed to create space for the new bike lanes.

Jessica Morris, assistant director of transportation, noted that this project was supported by the 2009 Downtown Master Plan and the Complete Streets policy, passed in 2012. While numerous public hearings on the topic have been held this year, Smith noted that several community members personally expressed concern over the proposal to remove parking spaces on main roads.

“Even though we are not losing any handicapped lanes or spaces, the loss of any parking could be a potential issue for those who may be less mobile,” Smith said. “If we get rid of parking, it would effectively exclude certain members of the community from the area.”

Kilgore echoed this sentiment, noting that it would also negatively affect businesses. “A lot of people don’t go downtown because they say that there is no parking,” Kilgore said. “How come we can’t get a plan where these bicycle paths connect on outer streets? What is the difference between me parking in the parking garage and having to walk a couple of blocks to get where I need to go and bikers using side streets and parking there, and then just walking the same way we do?”

Ullman disagreed, noting the additional physical strain that bikers face. “As a daily bike commuter who is using my body, physically it’s hard,” Ullman said. “If we want people to be using these healthier options of mobility, ease of use and connectivity are important.”

Given the standing disagreements, Council determined that a work session would be needed before a vote is taken. While no date has been set, it is expected to be discussed before the next Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 12.


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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2 thoughts on “Panhandling ordinance amendments pass first Council vote

  1. Taxpayer

    Vagrants are literally flooding the city, drugged out and leaving needles everywhere and everyone is arguing about a nonenforced panhandling ordinance and bike lanes.

  2. indy499

    This is a good start. Roney is a joke. She has no panhandlers, dopers where she lives. And, of course, she can sleep because she has a lower noise ordinance level than some of us.

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