Carbondale seeks crackdown on highway panhandling
CARBONDALE – Town officials here are looking for some help from Garfield County and the Colorado State Patrol to address frequent panhandling at the corner of state Highways 82 and 133.
A July 27 letter signed by Carbondale Mayor Stacey Patch Bernot was addressed to the Garfield County commissioners, Sheriff Lou Vallario and State Patrol Capt. Richard Duran outlining the town’s concerns.
“The Carbondale Board of Trustees receives numerous complaints about the panhandlers that routinely work the [highway] intersection, which is the main entrance to our town,” Bernot’s letter stated. “Several people have said they avoid that intersection because of the people who beg for money while motorists are waiting for the light to change.”
Local businesses are also concerned that they may be losing customers that are choosing to avoid the intersection, the letter states.
Panhandling by people holding signs declaring that they’re homeless or out of work and looking for a little help has become pretty much a daily occurrence at the intersection. Some of the regulars have set up encampments on nearby federal lands beneath the Bureau of Land Management’s Red Hill Recreation Area.
However, the highway intersection itself is outside the town’s jurisdiction in Garfield County, and within the Colorado Department of Transportation right of way.
Bernot also raised the issue at a joint meeting with county commissioners back in June.
“It is a safety concern with the camping and fire danger, and it does affect our town’s image,” she said. “It’s a hard way to say ‘welcome to Carbondale.'”
Last year, the Town Council invited a representative from the Feed My Sheep Ministry in Glenwood Springs, which provides temporary overnight shelter and a day center for the area’s homeless, to see what it could do to help alleviate the problem.
“We were informed that the panhandlers were people who have lost their privileges with the ministry for not adhering to their rules,” the town’s letter states.
“We appeal to you to enforce laws related to loitering on public property and help us to make this intersection a normal driving experience for people coming to our town,” it concludes.
However, according to Sheriff Vallario, there are no longer any statutes regarding loitering, unless it involves school grounds.
“We basically can’t tell people that they can’t be on public property, unless it’s around schools,” he said.
Vallario said he and Duran have discussed ways to address the problem, but there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to enforcement.
“We are aware of the problem and are actively working to find the best way to resolve it,” Vallario said.
One approach would be from a public safety standpoint, which is how the city of Glenwood Springs addressed the problem a few years ago when panhandlers were frequenting the main entrance to the Roaring Fork Marketplace. The city passed an ordinance prohibiting panhandling, citing traffic/pedestrian safety issues.
But, while municipalities can pass such ordinances, the county has less flexibility to do that, Vallario said.
In the past, the town of Carbondale has considered annexing the highway intersection into town, which would allow it to pass such an ordinance.
“What we think we can do is respond by putting some signage out there that says no pedestrians are allowed on the highway right of way, similar to what you see on the interstate and at rest areas,” Vallario said.
The problem is there’s a controlled pedestrian crosswalk at the Highway 82/133 intersection, which allows foot and bicycle access to the Red Hill Area.
“We can charge people for violating a posted closure, but we can’t be selective with the enforcement,” Vallario said. “We understand that it’s a safety issue, but if we’re going to enforce something it has to be consistent.”
The town has applied for a federal grant to look at the feasibility of a pedestrian overpass or underpass at the intersection, but such a project is likely several years off.
Grand Junction took another approach to panhandling that also might be an option for the Carbondale intersection.
“We can encourage the general public not to give them any money, and they might just go away,” Vallario said.
Grand Junction posted signs at the Horizon Drive interchange and other locations discouraging giving to panhandlers.
“But, then it’s just a musical chairs game,” Vallario said. “They just find somewhere else to go.”
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