More panhandlers set sights on Basalt and El Jebel | AspenTimes.com

More panhandlers set sights on Basalt and El Jebel

A panhandler holds up a sign Wednesday to try to collect money from shoppers departing the City Market and surrounding businesses in Basalt. The public right-of-way at East Valley Road is a popular spot for panhandlers.

There has been a spike in the number of panhandlers and vagrants in Basalt and El Jebel this year, but law enforcement agencies reported Tuesday it hasn't corresponded with a spike in illegal activity.

Panhandlers are seeking money nearly every day at a few key intersections in Basalt such as Willits Lane and Valley Road, Willits near its intersection with Highway 82 and near the roundabout at Basalt Avenue and Emma Road, said Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott. The department has fielded a fair number of calls from residents inquiring about the safety and legality of the panhandling, he said.

"We have to do a bit of educating that they aren't doing anything illegal," Knott said.

As long as panhandling is done on public right of way rather than private land, it is generally legal, he said. The panhandlers cannot be aggressive or hassle the people they are seeking money from, he said, but they cannot be prevented from asking for donations.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, found earlier this year that panhandlers' signs seeking donations were protected as free speech. Numerous law blogs said municipalities across the country are realizing the implications of the decision on panhandling ordinances.

A second court ruling in September hit closer to home. A U.S. District Judge issued a decision that struck down a panhandling ordinance in Grand Junction that banned soliciting in public places.

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The decisions came as panhandling has become more obvious throughout the valley. Glenwood Springs has held recent community meetings to try to address homelessness, vagrancy and panhandling.

Panhandlers were a fixture at the median on Highway 82 at the intersection with Highway 133 near Carbondale until the Colorado Department of Transportation posted no loitering signs.

In El Jebel, vagrants were regularly hanging around a pedestrian underpass of Highway 82 and in Crown Mountain Park.

A panhandler has staked a claim at the entrance to Snowmass in the median of Brush Creek Road at the intersection with Highway 82.

Eagle County sheriff's deputies said the increase in panhandling has hit Basalt more than El Jebel, according to department spokeswoman Jessie Mosher. Deputies have been called to Crown Mountain Park for a couple of incidents.

"Our deputy said that they have not had an increase in responses to the park for panhandling but have dealt with a couple of suspicious party calls at that location," Mosher said.

Becky Wagner, executive director of Crown Mountain Park, said there is a large homeless population in the midvalley and that some of the folks hang out in the park. "They're pretty quiet, for the most part," she said.

One frequent visitor is known as the "blue bottle guy" because he's always drinking Bud Light out of blue bottles and leaving his empties around. Wagner noted that there haven't been any major problems with the homeless visitors.

Knott said he is unsure why more panhandlers are in the Basalt area. He believes the activity will slack off as the temperature lowers. "I have a lot of them tell me they're just passing through," he said, adding that they confirm they will move to warmer climates when winter strikes the Roaring Fork Valley.

Crawford Properties didn't wait for cold weather to reduce the number of panhandlers. Robert Hubbell, CEO of Crawford Properties, said he and his crew saw an uptick in the number of panhandlers around the El Jebel Plaza earlier this year.

"We did, but we kicked them out," he said. The property is private, so panhandling and vagrancy can be prohibited. Crawford Properties reported the activity to the Eagle County Sheriff's Office and had people moved off their property, he said.

Crawford Properties also monitors video cameras in the pedestrian underpass of Highway 82. They reported to authorities that vagrants were hanging around the tunnel and creating a safety issue. Some pedestrians were crossing Highway 82 rather than use the underpass with the vagrants in there, he said. Eagle County deputy sheriffs address those reports as well.

While panhandling and vagrancy on public property isn't illegal, it has been unsettling to some midvalley residents. Amy Conrardy said one vagrant was watching youth soccer at Crown Mountain Park this summer while consuming a large amount of alcohol. The man was spotted urinating by a garbage can while doing little to conceal his business. Parents complained to the Sheriff's Office but an arrest couldn't be made because the man's genitals weren't spotted.

Conrardy said her family tries to ride their bikes and walk as frequently as possible, so the rising amount of panhandling and vagrancy was very visible this summer. She and her husband told their sons not to take the bike-pedestrian path behind Orchard Plaza anymore after frequently seeing men that appeared to be vagrants smoking and drinking there, she said. Instead her boys ride through Sopris Village subdivision to reach Crown Mountain Park.

Conrardy said she would welcome a community discussion on the issue to hear other people's views.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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