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Jackson County considers exclusion law for Greenway, parks

People engaged in criminal behavior could be barred from the Bear Creek Greenway and county parks for 90 days under an exclusion law being considered by Jackson County commissioners.

If banned people returned, they could be arrested for trespassing.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler and parks officials brought the idea to commissioners Tuesday. Commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing in the future to gather public input.

They’ll decide whether to adopt an exclusion ordinance covering county property that would be similar to an exclusion law covering downtown Medford.

Exclusion laws often face criticism for their disproportionate impact on homeless people.

Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton said Medford’s exclusion law has been challenged in court and upheld.

Enforcement of a county exclusion law would be aimed at repeat offenders who refuse to follow the rules, said Jackson County Parks and Roads Director John Vial.

“It’s really targeted to take care of problem behaviors,” Vial said.

He said there are certain people living along the Greenway who are well known to law enforcement and parks workers for chronic problem behavior.

The law would be used when people engage in specific illegal conduct, including arson, reckless endangerment, sex offenses, weapons offenses and harassment, Benton and Sickler said.

Local agencies regularly conduct sweeps of the Greenway to clean up trash, arrest wanted people and offer services to help people escape homelessness.

Just a day or two after the sweeps, most people are back camping along the Greenway, Sickler said.

Earlier this year, officials backed off on law enforcement along the Greenway and encouraged homeless people living there to shelter in place to reduce the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.

A variety of agencies and nonprofits stepped up efforts to provide food, sanitation, physical and mental health care and other services along the Greenway.

As temperatures warmed, vegetation dried out and fire danger increased, officials launched a new urban campground with services on a dirt lot in Medford in July. They encouraged people to move off the Greenway and into the campground.

Sickler said about 60-65 people were known to be living along the Greenway. About half moved to the urban campground.

“We had a percentage of people who refused to accept resources,” he said.

Sickler said some people continued to live on the Greenway, and some engage in criminal behavior — hiding stolen property in their camps and generating massive quantities of trash that is costly to remove.

The Almeda fire that tore along the Greenway and the Interstate 5 corridor in September displaced many people living there, but problems remain.

Exclusion laws are widely used across Oregon as a tool to manage problem behavior in parks and improve the experience for the public, said Jackson County Parks Manager Steve Lambert.

“It’s important that we take into account the entire valley and people who want to use these facilities peacefully,” Sickler said.

He said an exclusion law could help improve safety along the Greenway.

A county exclusion law could apply to county parks and other county property, including the Jackson County Courthouse in Medford. Homeless people sometimes camp out on the courthouse property.

Jackson County commissioners would decide the extent of an exclusion law should they choose to adopt one.

People currently can be given a ticket for illegal camping on county property, but they can’t be arrested, Vial said.

“They can say, ‘Thanks,’ and go right back to doing it,” he said.

People who are excluded from county property could appeal in Jackson County Circuit Court, Benton said.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said he is especially concerned about the substantial danger of illegal fires and arson along the Greenway. He said an exclusion law could be a reasonable and prudent step to help improve conditions there.

But Dyer also questioned whether the law would serve as much of a deterrent against people with criminal histories who repeatedly flout laws.

Commissioner Bob Strosser said he’s concerned about people who pose a fire danger, the tons of trash that have to be periodically removed, and violent and threatening behavior along the Greenway.

“I would like us to proceed judiciously and look at this,” he said of the proposed exclusion law.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she has concerns about adopting more restrictions and regulations, especially when the county can’t enforce laws already on the books. She said regular people just trying to use county parks could end up running afoul of exclusion law criteria and get banned from parks.

Vial said an exclusion law wouldn’t solve all problems along the Greenway, but it would give deputies and parks workers another tool.

“We are under no illusion this will fix everything,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Medford police officers Jenny Newell and RJ Josephson log in activity at a homeless camp off the Greenway in north Medford.