City Says: Go Elsewhere – Ordinances Ban Smoking, Sidewalk Obstruction in Downtown Ashland
Picture downtown Ashland. Go on, try it. If your image involves cigarette smoke, panhandlers, and buskers on the sidewalks, you’re not alone. But as of this month, the image may no longer be accurate.
Earlier this year, the Ashland City Council voted to increase police presence in the downtown to help deter aggressive panhandling. Smoking and panhandling have become so pervasive in the downtown that ordinances were recently enacted to change the situation. The first, effective as of May 17, prohibits panhandling near ATMs and banks, as well as at outdoor dining areas. The second, effective June 2, prohibits obstruction of sidewalks—that is, leaving less than six feet of clearance for passers-by. The third, effective June 3, prohibits smoking or the use of inhalants in public spaces (sidewalks, the plaza, and Chautauqua Square) in downtown Ashland, as well as 10 feet from the entrance, exit, windows, or ventilation of public places or places of employment.
City Councilor Stefani Seffinger wrote a first draft of the smoking ordinance in 2015. The draft underwent a study session and received positive feedback from residents and the business community before its adoption earlier this month. Seffinger’s reasons for supporting the ordinance are primarily health concerns—smoking is “the leading cause of preventable death,” and secondhand smoke is a proven hazard, especially to children and those with asthma.
“Secondhand smoke in an outdoor area, especially areas that are surrounded by buildings, can cause secondhand smoke exposure and is especially a concern with reactive asthma,” said Seffinger. “More children are also experiencing asthma symptoms and should not be exposed to smoking.”
“We have certainly had an increase in smoking downtown, which does create more cigarette litter to be collected and disposed of before it enters our waterways and endangers wildlife,” she continued. “As an environmentalist, this had been an issue for me as well. In short, my reasons for proposing this ordinance had nothing to do with homeless issues—as a matter of fact it was said at a council meeting when it was being considered it would have little impact on the homeless population since smoking was expensive.”
Matthew Bemis, manager at Smokin Deals Custom Glass Smoke Shop in Ashland, agreed that cigarette butts are a problem in the downtown. But he also brought up the other, perhaps bigger side of the argument: an individual’s right to smoke.
“I think [the ordinance] is not a bad idea, to be honest,” Bemis said. “I hate walking around and seeing cigarette butts everywhere—it’s disgusting. But I feel if someone wants to smoke, they should be allowed to smoke.”
At 250 Main, a women’s clothing store in Ashland, Dana Spitzer expressed her opinion about the 10-foot restriction from a business’ entrance.
“My opinion is it’s not far enough from the businesses. Ten feet just doesn’t seem very far,” said Spitzer, who noted that smokers just move to the curb in front of the business.
Among the homeless and transient population, some view the smoking ban as a violation of rights.
“That’s what this town has come to: sticking their nose in other people’s business where it doesn’t belong,” said Raunee Ingle, who grew up in Ashland and recently returned to find it much changed. “Carbon monoxide—that’s more poisonous,” he continued, comparing the carbon monoxide emitted from cigarettes to that emitted from vehicles. “You could have 100 smokers right here smoking and that wouldn’t kill you, but 100 cars would.”
Ingle acknowledged a different scene in downtown Ashland then when he left, with homeless and transients leaving more trash as one example. However, he doesn’t believe a smoking ban will change anything.
“People are still going to smoke downtown; you can’t give everyone a ticket,” he said. “You’re not going to stop drug use just by banning something.”
As for the ordinance regarding blocking sidewalks, Seffinger’s focus is on safety.
“With the increased number of people, backpacks, and dogs on the sidewalks it becomes increasingly hard to avoid tripping or getting across the street,” she said. “We have a number of older citizens and visitors in town who are unsteady and walking with canes who need a clear path.”
Additionally, public input has revealed an increase in harassment on the downtown sidewalks since last year.
“There has also been a number of young women who have expressed feeling intimidated when they have to walk through a gauntlet of people who obstruct their progress and cause them to feel intimidated with sexually harassing comments,” Seffinger said. “I have not voted for any of these ordinances except for the reason of making our city safer and a place where everyone feels welcome and safe.”
Regardless of the reasoning behind the ordinances—specifically, whether they are designed to keep downtown Ashland’s pretty face unblemished—whether or not they are enforceable is another matter. As the first city in Oregon to enact a ban on smoking on its sidewalks, Ashland will be the first to find out.
So far, it’s not working at all.