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Council to vote on bans on smoking, blocking sidewalks downtown

June will soon be here and, as ever, downtown will fill up with visitors. But this year, it's likely, at least two things will be different: It will not be legal to smoke in downtown Ashland nor will it be OK to sit, lay or block any part of a sidewalk in downtown within six feet of a curb. 

The Ashland City Council has both items on the agenda for a second and final vote after months of testimony and public hearings and many drafts of the ordinances. Ordinances (unless otherwise specified) take effect 30 days after passage. There is likely to be some changes to the first draft which was passed by the council at their last meeting in April, but essentially what is expected to remain is that smoking downtown on the Plaza and in the downtown district, including private areas within 10 feet of a public sidewalk, will be banned.

The city of Ashland describes it this way on its website: “The Indoor Clean Air Act prohibits smoking or the use of inhalants in all public places and places of employment. Public places are defined as any enclosed area open to the public. In addition, this ordinance prohibits smoking or the use of inhalants on public sidewalks and in the plaza or Chautauqua Square, as well as other specific areas in downtown Ashland.” The rule would also make it a violation to smoke in an enclosed patio of a business open to the public as well. 

It’s also expected that the so called “sit, lay laws” which ban sitting or laying on sidewalks blocking them within six feet of the curb will also no longer be acceptable, just as blocking entrances and exits to public buildings will also be a violation. 

If the ordinance is finally passed it will be months in the making. The issue of “downtown behavior” showed up on the agenda in the winter and has been discussed and dealt with in numerous actions by the council since. The Ashland City Council passed an ordinance to deal with aggressive panhandlers by banning people from being approached at automatic tellers outside financial institutions and sidewalk cafes, but stopped short of banning panhandlers from approaching cars.

The council also passed a measure to fund four new, part-time police cadets to patrol downtown, as well as $73,000 for county jail beds in case downtown behavior rose beyond a violation, which Police Chief Tighe O’Meara says it cannot if a person is in violation of any of the new rules. It would take something that is a crime, not a violation, in order to warrant jail time. 

In testimony, groups and private citizens have been vocal, both those saying the council should not be “criminalizing homelessness” and urging councilors not to pass the measures, and also from other city residents and downtown business people, including spokespeople from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who have stated that the numbers of homeless people crowding sidewalks panhandling has become “a gauntlet” that tourists and residents no longer want to have to walk through. 

The council will also have before them a piece of public art to consider. The Public Art Commission approved an 8-foot tall rock totem to be placed at the trail head of “Bandersnatch” in the Ashland Watershed and it’s up to the council to give that final approval. The piece would be a rock totem with wildlife images representing the area and marking the trail head. The cost would be roughly $3,500 and painted by hand from artist Karen Rycheck, who one day hopes to create painted trail markers throughout the watershed area. 

The council meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, in the City Council Chambers at 1175 East Main St. in Ashland.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.