DADE CITY — After facing a room half-filled with orange-vested newspaper hawkers, county commissioners on Tuesday moved forward with a solicitation ban that they plan to relax on Sundays.
"I think it's a good way to go," Commissioner Jack Mariano said after hearing from sales people and a newspaper attorney. "It's very important for people to make a living; it's not a job they want but need to do, so they need to hang onto it."
County attorneys had put forth a couple of options, including an outright ban on all panhandlers, street vendors and people soliciting along roadsides for charities. Another option included requiring solicitors to have a letter allowing them to solicit, wear vests and have photo identification. Staffers favored a total ban, saying it would be less expensive to enforce and easier to defend in court.
Senior assistant county attorney Kristi Wooden pointed out that a recent ban approved in St. Petersburg was upheld.
"(A ban) seems to be the closest fit between government interest in safety and maintaining traffic flow," she said. "Quite frankly a ban is easier to enforce, easier to implement."
But Tampa Tribune attorney Jim Lake urged commissioners to lift the ban on Sundays, when 115 hawkers sell 13,000 newspapers.
"A lot of people choose to get a newspaper this way," he said.
He added that Florida Department of Transportation figures show traffic is 40 percent lighter on Sundays, making safety less of a concern. Also, a six-day measure would effectively ban panhandlers, while still allowing legitimate charities to raise money.
"A panhandler is not going to be able to make enough money one day a week," he said.
Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand said she had bought newspapers from streetside vendors.
"I took my dollar to get my paper, and I was glad I had the opportunity to do that," she said.
In a maneuver aimed at reducing the number of public hearings, commissioners gave preliminary approval to the total ban, after County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder told them it would allow them to approve the relaxed version without having to re-advertise the entire proposal.
Pasco isn't the first community to struggle with the issue. Panhandling within 4 feet of the right of way on Hillsborough County roads has been banned since 1991. Last year, St. Petersburg passed a wide-ranging solicitation ban that encompasses newspaper hawkers and charities that solicit on roadsides.
Last week, New Port Richey cracked down on persistent panhandlers with an ordinance that bans anyone from continuing to beg for money after getting a "negative response to an initial demand." It also bans blocking the passage of anyone on foot, bicycle, wheelchair or motor vehicle while asking for money.
New Port Richey already has a measure on the books that bans panhandling "within any street, highway or road right-of-way," and within 200 feet of the center of any intersection in the city.
While that measure is an effort to deal with panhandling in New Port Richey, it also applies to salespeople and anyone seeking charitable contributions. The ordinance outlaws "threatening, intimidating, or harassing behavior for the purpose of solicitation."
In other business, commissioners approved tweaks to the county's blueprint for growth in response to objections from the Florida Department of Community Affairs. The plan, which designates areas along U.S. 19 and State Road 54 as "urban service areas" and relaxes development rules there, now eliminates about 26,000 acres in the south area, including properties along Interstate 75 to State Road 52, lands east of Meadow Pointe and Bexley Ranch development.
Those areas will be designated expansion areas and still will be charged lower fees to pay for transportation, assistant county attorney David Goldstein said.
"We can add those areas (to the urban service area map) in the future," he said.
State officials last year had rejected the original plan, saying the areas didn't meet the definition of an urban service area and weren't developed enough. County officials had argued that the areas were needed so Pasco could compete with larger counties for high-wage industries. But the election of Gov. Rick Scott meant the appointment of a new DCA secretary, Billy Buzzett, who agreed to a settlement.
County lobbyists also have worked with lawmakers to change the definition of an urban service area so Pasco could qualify. It was those pending new guidelines that the DCA under new leadership used in crafting the compromise.