NEW PORT RICHEY — The rules are changing for pedestrians panhandling on roadways in Pasco County.
In an effort to curtail the growing problem of people wandering between cars and waving at drivers from highway medians, the Pasco County Commission approved an ordinance this week that makes those activities illegal. Drivers who interact with the pedestrians on the road, such as those who drop a few dollars in their hands, will also be in violation.
The ordinance violations can result in fines of up to $500.
Resident complaints about panhandling have been a regular chorus at County Commission meetings. Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose district includes U.S. 19 in Port Richey and Hudson, where there are ongoing problems, said Tuesday that he recently got a video of a man panhandling while walking among cars.
He has also related stories in recent months of a man who would go out on the highway and bring his children with him. Others boasted about earning as much as $600 a day panhandling while another would finish up his walks through traffic at the end of the day by getting in his new Cadillac and driving away, Mariano said.
In October, commissioners heard about how their previous rules to discourage panhandlers had been struck down as an attack on the First Amendment.
A recent U.S. District Court ruling determined that regulating solicitations for donations was unconstitutional, directing enforcement agencies “to utilize other means to ensure traffic safety, such as, what is referred to as the state’s jaywalking statute,” wrote Patrick Moore, senior assistant county attorney, in a memo to commissioners at the time.
The county’s new ordinance emphasizes safety. It points out that traffic fatalities have grown, that standing and walking in the road and along medians is dangerous, that such behavior can distract drivers and cause a hazard, and that having motorists interacting with pedestrians interferes with the free flow of traffic.
The ordinance states, “It is unlawful for any person to engage in any physical interaction between a pedestrian and an occupant of a motor vehicle, including but not limited to the transfer of any product or material, while the motor vehicle is not legally parked and is located on the traveled portion of a designated roadway.”
The new rules also make it clear that the highway is not a place to do business.
According to the ordinance, “It is unlawful to use any public right-of-way for commercial activity. Commercial activity prohibited by this section includes, but is not limited to, vending or sale of goods, display or goods for sale, storage of goods for sale in connection with commercial activity, or repair or manufacturing of goods.”
Pasco established its original ordinance in 2011, then expanded it to seven days a week in 2016 after a newspaper distributor was struck and killed on U.S. 19 while selling Sunday papers.
Commissioner Mike Moore said he thought the ordinance will give the sheriff tools he needs to keep the foot traffic down on roadways because, until now, “their hands have been tied.” While the problem has been primarily in West Pasco, he said he has also seen it growing in his south and central Pasco district.
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Just the other day, commission chairperson Kathryn Starkey said, she saw an elderly woman in dark clothes walking down the highway median barely visible. Such sights concern her.
“I’m hoping this ordinance can help to stop the tragic things that are happening on our roadways,” Starkey said.
The ordinance will take effect next week.