MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Monongalia County Commission passed a pedestrian and vehicle safety ordinance Wednesday.
The measure was developed following meetings with countywide municipalities after numerous reports of “close calls” caused by apparent homeless people soliciting from the median.
It will now be illegal for pedestrians within a right-of-way and vehicle drivers/occupants to restrict the flow of traffic by exchanging items or interacting in any other way. The ordinance provides an exemption for first responders who may have to enter the right-of-way for emergency purposes.
“We were very careful to look at what can be addressed, and what can be addressed is the pedestrian and vehicle safety area, and that’s what we’ve designed,” Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said.
Through the process, members of the public have called the effort an attack on disadvantaged people and a violation of free speech. But Commissioner Jeff Arnett said through their preparation of the proposal they learned many of the people in the medians have homes and declined offers of employment while accepting cash donations from motorists in the medians.
“Regardless of the perception or even if it’s the reality of how the ordinance was born, it’s completely morphed into something that does not attack panhandling, it does not outlaw panhandling, it doesn’t criminalize homelessness, and it doesn’t even mention homelessness,” Arnett said.
The commission reported receiving multiple reports of near-miss situations as a result of activity in the median. The commission has received reports from the public of a person in a wheelchair who fell into the travel lanes while soliciting from the median and near collisions when motorists stop to interact with people in the median.
“It’s not an attack on homelessness,” Commissioner Sean Sikora said. “It’s an ordinance to promote safety in those areas and the issues caused by people that are in the median and people stopping to interact with people in the median.”
The commissioners have also contended that the ordinance will treat all equally. Soliciting of any kind is no longer allowed, whether it be a church group, fire department, or school organization.
“When you’ve got a situation where there’s four or five lanes of traffic and you’ve got an individual sitting in the middle of the road, it creates a safety hazard not just for the individual on the road but for the drivers,” Arnett said. “So, that is why the ordinance before us is being considered.”
Sikora made it clear they are not imposing their will on the citizens of Star City, Granville, or any other city in Monongalia County.
“It only affects Monongalia County,” he said. “It doesn’t affect municipalities,” Sikora said. “Municipalities can have their own ordinance or pass versions of this one.”
The ordinance became law at passage.