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Fort Collins Asks: Should Old Town Benches Have Time Limits?

Ashley Jefcoat
Fort Collins city officials are considering measures to limit or outright ban sitting or lying on public benches or sidewalks in the popular Old Town area. The bench pictured would not be impacted since it is outside the proposed ordinance area.

The City of Fort Collins is considering limiting how long a person can sit or lie on a public sidewalk or bench in Old Town in order to combat ‘disruptive behaviors’ in the iconic downtown area.

Officials are even considering banning the use of public benches in Old Town all together.

The proposed policy changes are in response to complaints from Old Town businesses and results from a 2015 resident survey, according to city policy and project manager Ginny Sawyer.

“The three most reported disruptive behaviors [in the 2015 survey] were panhandling, groups or individuals sitting or lying on sidewalks and then just aggressive or intimidating behavior,” Sawyer said. “The city really put effort into increasing resources including overnight shelters, downtown police presence and in creating the Outreach Fort Collins team.”

Sawyer said the city is continuing to receive complaints of people “sitting or lying for long periods of time in the downtown area,” so officials are asking the public if those behaviors should be regulated. Transit stops and city-owned restrooms across Fort Collins could also be affected.

A preliminary draft of the proposed ordinances would also prohibit sitting, kneeling or lying down within 20 feet of a transit facility and within 10 feet of a public restroom entrance. Benches at transit facilities would have a two hour time limit. The draft also states that "a culpable mental state is not required, and need not be proven, for an offense under this section." 

People experiencing a medical emergency, children in designated play areas and licensed vendors or performances like festivals or parades would be exempted. 

The Fort Collins Police Department is part of the discussion with city officials, but Sawyer admits that enforcing a time limit on benches or sidewalks would “be a complicated issue.”

"How do they intend to enforce an ordinance that prohibits being seated on a public bench for more than an hour," asked Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

"I know that some cities have enforcement officers that go and chalk the tires of cars that are parked in particular parking places to make sure that those cars don't stay, are they going to chalk people's feet? The prohibition is absurd, and any system of enforcement would also be absurd. Fort Collins should just give up on this," Silverstein said. 

Impact on homeless population

According to Sawyer, the proposed regulatory changes have nothing to do with homelessness.

“We’re not asking people if they are homeless in terms of enforcement, we are looking at behaviors,” she said. “We’ve worked hard with this community and with the business community to provide additional resources to address homelessness in a compassionate way. So I think these are separate issues.”

Silverstein disagrees. 

"It targets homeless people for behavior that perhaps everyone engages in but it will selectively be enforced against the homeless," he said. "I'm certainly hoping that city officials can be persuaded that this is not a good idea." 

This is not the first time the city has made policy changes that would impact the homeless population. Fort Collins was taken to court in 2015by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the city’s panhandling policy. An out of court settlement was negotiated in which Fort Collins agreed to pay more than $80,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union and agreed to no longer enforce rules against passive panhandling.

Other cities have floated the idea of time limits on public benches. In 2015, Madison, Wisconsin Mayor Paul Soglin proposed similar restrictions in the city’s downtown area, which would have banned lying on public benches between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m. the next day. The proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by the city council.

In 2016 the Colorado Springs city council passed the Pedestrian Access Act. The ordinance makes it illegal to sit, lie down or kneel on sidewalks in designated downtown areas.

The city of Fort Collins is holding two public meetings on the proposed changes, including a citywide prohibition on leaving personal property unattended. You can also complete an online survey. The city council will discuss changes at their March 7 meeting.

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