Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Wilmington council limits standing in the median, debates threats to public safety

The city strengthened its ordinances this week to make it a misdemeanor for people standing in medians 6-feet and under. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Rules against standing in the street median, which will mostly affect the homeless or poverty-stricken, is now in the City of Wilmington’s code of ordinances.

READ MORE: ‘Community’s asking for it’: City ordinance floated as way to combat homelessness downtown

On Tuesday, the Wilmington City Council voted 4-1 to approve an ordinance that would prohibit people from standing in a median measuring 6 feet and under. 

The city has erected signs at multiple major intersections notifying the community of the safety concern. Post publication, city spokesperson Dylan Lee provided the total number of locations where signs are number 37 on city streets 292 streets owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

According to city attorney Meredith Everhart, the Wilmington Police Department will issue verbal warnings before issuing citations. The ordinance will also allow officers to charge violators with Class C misdemeanor.

Every council member aside from Kevin Spears (council member Charlie Rivenbark was absent) approved of the ordinance.

“The fact of the matter is, this is a public safety ordinance, and I’ve heard from hundreds of our constituents who claim that they don’t feel safe when somebody approaches their vehicle every time they stop with their kids in the car and the kids in the car seat, folks coming at their vehicle,” council member Luke Waddell said on Tuesday.

Though this was the second reading of the ordinance, it was updated to specify what size medians would be prohibited. It was first heard last year and in the interim between then and now,  the WPD responded to a man wielding a gun from a median on Randall Parkway. 

On Jan. 26, 69-year-old Edwin Leroy Vaughan was charged with two counts of assault on a law enforcement officer after firing upon officers, who returned fire. No one was injured, though a BP gas station on S. College Road was damaged.  

Council member Kevin Spears brought up the incident on Tuesday, suggesting criminalizing the behavior could cause more incidents like what happened on Jan. 26. 

“Just look at how severe what should be such a simple action caused total chaos on S. College Road,” Spears said. “And bullets only struck a building. They missed cars, they missed people, they hit a building, a business, with people inside … We don’t understand the mentality of the people standing here or standing in these medians or what they’re going through.” 

Waddell said he agreed with Spears and was thankful no one was harmed in the senseless act, but he took away a different lesson.

“This situation, where we narrowly avoided — missed — a humongous tragedy that could’ve been avoided by passing this resolution earlier, or rather this ordinance earlier, is just a case in point of how dragging your feet and grandstanding can cost lives,” Waddell said.

Spears also questioned if people standing in the median were creating a large enough area to justify the ordinance. He said if the council was concerned about someone stepping off the median or getting struck by a vehicle, that has not happened yet.

The WPD was not able to provide details on how many accidents or unsafe altercations it documented in the last year involved a person standing in the median. 

“Overall, I would not say it was a huge problem, as far as numbers, but safety-wise one person is too many,” Lt. Greg Willet told Port City Daily on Thursday.

Spears also called out Waddell for his defense of the ordinance, saying his “privilege is showing.” 

“Hundreds of people that are afraid for the children and the families at the median – that’s bull,” Spears said. “I get it, it does not look well. It doesn’t look well.” 

The council member went on to say he has never felt threatened by someone standing on the side of the road and neither has his 5-year-old daughter. He said she is not frightened by their presence, but rather asks him to give them money. 

Council member David Joyner, also an assistant district attorney, explained very few people would be convicted of violating the ordinance. 

He said state law prohibits individuals from being convicted — not charged – of a Class C misdemeanor if they do not commit another offense within 30 days. They could also provide proof of a good faith effort to address factors like homelessness, unemployment, mental health, substance abuse that might limit someone’s ability to comply with the ordinance.

“The likelihood of someone being convicted of this offense and having this go on their record is incredibly low and they would have to have a very extensive record,” Joyner said.

That information did not ease Spears’ concerns, arguing no one would take 30 days off between citations.

“We’re operating from a place of privilege because we don’t have to stand in the median, but if you’re trying to make money every day and you’re trying to survive, pardon my French, I don’t give a damn how wide the median is,” Spears said. “If there’s somebody trying to give money to me, I’m going to go get it.”

The median ordinance is among several recent local actions that negatively affect the homeless population.

The city has an ordinance on the books banning panhandling in its limits, though it’s protected by the First Amendment as free speech. A federal court case negates Wilmington’s ordinance, which is “to protect both pedestrians and motorists,” but states no one can walk, stand or sit on the street or median to ask for contributions from drivers. However, panhandlers are allowed on sidewalks.

The city has also encouraged residents to donate to agencies that can help instead of giving directly to individuals. 

WPD officers have been given orders to take a “no-nonsense approach” to trespassing individuals who are asked to leave private property in the wake of New Hanover County’s updated ordinance banning sleeping, camping and leaving behind belongings on county-owned property. The move was particularly aimed at the downtown county-owned library and parking deck on Second Street.

Waddell proposed a similar measure last year, saying he was planning to bring it up in the new year. He has yet to do so.

“The county had an issue, you know, about about a year and a half ago around the library, they passed an ordinance — public camping ordinance,” Waddell said at November Wilmington Downtown Inc. meeting. “A lot of other municipalities and counties around the country are starting to do the same. The city does not currently have one. Personally, I think that’s a problem.”

Tips or comments? Email journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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