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Medford City Council eyes Greenway camping ban

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneHomeless camp along the Bear Creek Greenway could be banned during fire season in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneHomeless camp along the Bear Creek Greenway could be banned during fire season in Medford.
Medford wants to prevent campfires during fire season

Medford City Council signaled Thursday that it believes camping on the Bear Creek Greenway during the summer months should be illegal.

The council during a study session indicated it would support an ordinance that would make the Greenway off limits to any type of camping from May 1 to Sept. 30, or longer depending on the fire season.

“I don’t think there is any question that the Greenway is a fire risk,” said Councilor Eric Stark.

In 2020, the city had 220 fires at or near the Greenway, posing a fire risk to surrounding business and residences. Many of the fires were the result of campfires that got out of control.

The Almeda fire last summer destroyed 2,500 residences from Ashland to Medford and also ravaged much of the Greenway. The Greenway is a difficult place to evacuate for emergency crews, particularly when a fire breaks out.

Eric Mitton, deputy city attorney, said the proposed ordinance, if approved by the council next Thursday, would make any kind of camping a misdemeanor along the Greenway during the fire season.

“If they’re unwilling to leave, an officer would have the ability to make an arrest,” he said.

The ordinance would apply to all types of camping, such as in a tent or a sleeping bag.

The city is attempting to craft an ordinance that takes into account court cases that allow homeless people to rest in place, as well as Oregon legislation that could potentially give more rights to those who throw down a bedroll on city sidewalks.

The council indicated that it might support creating designated areas for camping, or parking areas for car camping.

Mitton said the proposed ordinance would allow people to sleep on city sidewalks and other areas as long as they removed their bedding during the day.

He said the code regarding sleeping in public areas would be more permissible than under the existing ordinance.

In an Idaho Court of Appeals case, the city of Boise was unable to enforce an ordinance prohibiting sleeping outside unless an effort was made to provide shelter beds.

The court ruled cities can institute time-and-place regulations to deal with homeless issues.

As part of the settlement, Boise contributed $1.3 million toward homeless services.

Mitton said Medford has committed $4 million over the last two years to address issues related to homelessness and affordable housing.

Medford has a number of shelter bed options, including the urban campground off of Biddle Road. The Medford Gospel Mission and other organizations also offer beds for the homeless.

The council rejected other options, including a suggestion to make it a misdemeanor to organize a tent camp in parks or other city property.

This suggestion was a reaction to tents that were erected in Hawthorne Park after the Almeda fire.

Councilors thought this suggestion would have a chilling effect on organizations that provide food and other assistance to homeless people.

Mitton said there were more than 1,000 emails from local residents with suggestions about the homeless issue.

The proposed ordinance is an outgrowth of those suggestions, though some residents might think it doesn’t go far enough, while others might think it’s gone too far.

“This is not going to universally solve all the issues for persons experiencing homelessness in our community overnight,” Mitton said.

Councilor Tim D’Alessandro said he hoped the ordinance addresses other public safety concerns, such as environmental impacts from trash, fecal matter and needles.

“I don’t think we’re using fire as the sole reason for this ordinance,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.