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Officials welcome panhandling ban

By CHUCK BALLARO and NATHAN MAYBERG - | Apr 28, 2021

news@breezenewspapers.com

Lee County has banned panhandling at intersections and along roadways within its jurisdiction.

While Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch noted the ordinance approved by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday does not use the word “panhandling,” it bars “interactions between pedestrians and motorists” in county rights-of-way and at medians.

The ban, which became effective last Wednesday, applies to all arterial and collector roads in unincorporated Lee County.

Those in violation of the ordinance can now face fines up to $500 or a maximum jail sentence of 60 days.

The measure was presented as targeting the growing number of panhandlers along county roads, including some of North Fort Myers busiest intersections, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and homelessness remains an issue although the job market has heated up.

Wesch said the ordinance is “for the safety and protection of our rights-of-way and that while a class of individuals will be impacted, the purpose behind the ordinance is to keep all people safe.

“This is to prohibit interactions in our rights-of-way that could lead to injury and or death,” he said.

Wesch cited statistics that show Lee County ranks 11th in the nation for most dangerous places for pedestrians.

According to county staff, 22 pedestrians were killed last year in motor vehicle crashes in Lee County.

Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said driving down North Cleveland Avenue has become more dangerous as more panhandlers have come out looking for money.

“At every intersection there’s someone standing in the median, and they weren’t designed for that. One wrong step and someone could fall into traffic,” Hamman said. “This is about safety for the drivers and those doing this activity in the medians so there are fewer distractions on the road.”

Hamman said there has been a major uptick in the number of people in the medians and rights of way over the past eight months. Traffic has returned close to pre-pandemic levels and the population is growing, and Hamman said people on the medians is just one more distraction.

“My hope is that it will be vigorously enforced and make the roads in North Fort Myers at every major intersection a lot safer than it is today,” Hamman said.

Previously, there was little Lee County Sheriff’s deputies could do. They could only engage a panhandler when his/her actions directly impeded traffic.

Danny Ballard, president of the North Fort Myers Civic Association, said he understands the reason for the measure.

“Anyone standing there with a bucket or boot or sign that might cause traffic to stop and cause a wreck or impede traffic by walking to cars, is what it’s for,” Ballard said. “Will it impact panhandlers? Absolutely. But it isn’t written explicitly for them.”

Ballard, who also is a Fire Commissioner for the North Fort Myers Fire & Rescue District, said the union has a plan in place so that that won’t hurt collections for MDA.

He said he supports the measure.

“I like it. As the civic president, I get hammered weekly, if not daily, about how to get rid of panhandlers. I keep telling them the Sheriff’s Office can’t do anything without an ordinance,” Ballard said. “Now, there’s an ordinance and the sheriff has committed to enforcing it.”

A statement released by Lee County government after the passage of the ordinance states the Lee County Sheriff’s Office will begin educating the public about the ban. Enforcement is considered a last option.

The ordinance had to go to Tallahassee, with the hope it could be put into law by Friday.