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City eyes sidewalk restrictions

The Ashland City Council wants to give pedestrians more room on sidewalks while giving businesses less.

A 2008 city crackdown on businesses that put stuffed animals, merchandise and other items out on the sidewalk generated an outcry from business owners and some members of the community. In response, the city formed a Downtown Task Force to look at the use of sidewalks and related issues.

That task force, which included business owners, recommended that the city look at expanding businesses' use of the sidewalk. Currently, sidewalk dining, occasional sidewalk sales and functional items like benches and newspaper vending boxes are allowed.

In May, City Councilors voiced concerns that a proposal to let businesses display and sell merchandise on the sidewalks would lead to a cluttered downtown.

The council again looked at sidewalk issues on Thursday night, with language that would have allowed the display and sale of merchandise stripped from a proposed ordinance.

The council will finalize various ordinances dealing with sidewalk use at a future meeting. The soonest the council will meet again in a regular meeting is July 21. The first meeting in July is traditionally cancelled because of Fourth of July festivities.

On Thursday night, the council went a step further toward making more room for pedestrians by directing staff to work on ordinance language that in areas where sidewalks are 11 feet wide, there must be eight feet of clearance for pedestrians.

Where sidewalks are more narrow, there would need to be six feet of clearance.

The expanded eight-foot zone for pedestrians could leave less room for sidewalk dining, special sidewalk sales and items like newspaper boxes, flower planters, bike racks and benches.

Councilor Greg Lemhouse, who voted for creating the wider eight-foot zones, said outdoor restaurant tables and chairs tend to intrude on smaller six foot zones.

"On our tour, we saw this phenomenon of 'table creep,'" he said, making reference to an earlier tour of various spots in town.

Councilors David Chapman, Eric Navickas and Russ Silbiger also voted for city staff to develop ordinance language to create the eight-foot pedestrian clearance zones in spots where sidewalks are at least 11 feet wide.

Councilor Kate Jackson voted against the move, saying she thought wider clearance zones would be better for pedestrians, but she wanted to find a balance with other uses like sidewalk dining and the placement of items like benches.

City staff have also proposed phasing out the hodgepodge of newspaper racks and vending boxes that are found throughout Ashland by 2012. The city of Ashland would provide newspaper vending boxes with a standardized look.

Councilors Lemhouse and Chapman wanted to take that even farther by asking staff to examine the possibility of consolidating all the newspaper racks and vending boxes into "as few areas as possible." Chapman proposed, for example, having the newspapers for sale only at the downtown plaza and near the Ashland Public Library. Lemhouse said he liked the idea of one kiosk area.

Councilors Navickas, Jackson and Silbiger voted against Chapman and Lemhouse's idea, killing the proposal.

Navickas said restricting the sale of newspapers could violate the freedom of the press and would make publications less available to the public — although he agreed that the rows of newspaper racks and vending boxes around town have gotten "junky."

"Fundamentally, we shouldn't be restricting the press," Navickas said.

Local, regional and national newspapers like the Ashland Daily Tidings, Medford Mail Tribune, The Oregonian, The San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today are among the newspapers for sale in vending boxes. Real estate guides, The Nickel classifieds and the religious magazine "Signs of the Times" are just a few of the free publications available on public sidewalks.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.