By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun
An increase in panhandling at one of Colchester’s gateways — the business and hotel district surrounding Interstate 89’s exit 16 interchange — has prompted town officials to draft an ordinance to curb the behavior.
Along with the new ordinance, the Colchester Police Department is recommending new language in the town’s Code of Ordinances that explicitly authorizes its officers to enforce local ordinances, along with town officials.
The Colchester Selectboard approved a first reading of the changes at its Nov. 10 meeting. A public hearing on the changes is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Town Meeting House.
The panhandling ordinance would outlaw: “panhandling in a manner that is threatening, intimidating, coercive or obscene; intentionally touching or grabbing the person being solicited; directing fighting words at the person being solicited; intentionally obstructing free passage of cyclists and pedestrians on public sidewalks and paths; or intentionally obstructing, impeding, or otherwise making unsafe the flow of traffic.”
Colchester Economic Development Director Kathi Walker-O’Reilly noted that the ordinance respects people’s right to free speech and won’t affect unobtrusive panhandling. She said the exit 16 area is the only area of town where panhandling has been reported. The Colchester Police Department did not return phone calls seeking confirmation.
“Panhandling cannot be banned, however it can be limited,” O’Reilly, Police Chief Jennifer Morrison and Planning and Zoning Director Sarah Hadd wrote in a Nov. 10 memo to the board.
The activity is generally limited to people seeking money while standing in the traffic islands next to where cars are stopped at red lights waiting to turn onto Route 7. It occasionally disrupts traffic.
“The road network is already overburdened,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a safety issue. Before it becomes more of a safety issue we wanted to be able to work on this … We’ve seen an increase in the last year or so. We are trying to control it before it gets worse.”
O’Reilly said police would most likely start with a warning to aggressive panhandlers.
“(The ordinance) gives them a little more of an opportunity to say to them, ‘you shouldn’t be here,’” O’Reilly said.