Sidewalk newsracks and the law in Portland
Don't get me wrong. I love the newspapers. If the job paid halfway decently, I'd be a newspaperman myself, just like in my youthful days.
But all this talk about the need for Portland's sidewalks to be free -- free of duct tape on the eve of a parade, free of homeless people and other panhandlers -- gets me thinking about the newsracks that clutter up so much of our public rights-of-way. If we're really on a mission to clear the sidewalks of things (and people) that oughtn't to be there, what about all those newspaper vending boxes? Are there rules governing them? And are they ever enforced?
I started ruminating about this the other night, and it's worth pursuing some more. Let's start with some basics. In Portland, as in most cities, there are ordinances against obstructing streets and sidewalks. As to leaving objects in them (as opposed to plopping your body down on them -- a related but separate issue, very much in the news these days), here's what the city code says:
17.44.010 Unlawful Acts Enumerated.Under these rules, unless an object is issued a permit by the city, it's illegal for a private company to leave it anywhere on a sidewalk for more than two hours. There are large exceptions for those awful Tri-Met bus benches, for sidewalk cafes, and for sidewalk vendor carts, but unless I'm mistaken, there's no such exception for newsracks.
A. It is unlawful for any person to obstruct or cause to be obstructed any roadway, curb or sidewalk by leaving or placing, to remain longer than 2 hours any object, material or article which may prevent free passage over any part of such street or sidewalk area. This Section does not authorize any action in violation of any other Title or regulation...
D. This section shall not apply to:
1. Any use, sign, or structure for which a permit has been issued or which is erected under authority of any Title;
2. Motor vehicles lawfully parked pursuant to City Regulations;
3. Barricades placed by or with the approval of the City Engineer or the Traffic Engineer; nor
4. Temporary closures and occupancies pursuant to this Chapter.
So then how do these dispensers remain on our sidewalks? It must be because there are freedom of speech limitations on the city's ability to regulate them. But unless I'm misreading the city code (entirely possible), or there's some sort of permitting system that I've never heard of (less likely), newsracks are illegal in Portland, except to the extent that the federal or state constitutions or statutes make them legal.
Now, I'm going to take a wild guess that there's nothing in federal or state statutes on this -- maybe some laws about disability access touch on it, but I'll assume for purposes of this post that it all boils down to the constitutions. Those precious documents forbid many restrictions on speech, but if I'm recalling correctly, it's not at all clear that they forbid the city from restricting the time, manner, or place of speech. The city can't ban all newsracks, nor can it discriminate against one newsrack or another based on content, but it seems likely that it can regulate many aspects of their placement on city streets.
Indeed, as noted here the other day, the city has extensive regulations on the books as to newsracks on the transit mall. They can be found here. But those sections of the city code don't apply in other parts of town.
As for the rest of Portlandia, citywide rules of general application apply. For example, nothing, including a newsrack, is supposed to be chained or otherwise attached to at least certain types of city-owned poles:
17.64.040 Use of City Poles or Posts.Which brings us back to where the boxes are allowed, and where they aren't. This gets a little tricky, I think. There's nothing that I can find in the city code that says anything about it. But the city does have quite detailed "pedestrian design guidelines" that speak to these issues. I don't know what the precise legal effect of these guidelines is, but they have been part of the city's pedestrian master plan (huge pdf thingy) since at least 1998.
A. It is unlawful for any person to attach any animal, or to affix or attach any bill, sign, advertisement of any kind, or any contrivance or device of any kind or nature other than City official notices, to any pole, post, wire, cable, fixture or equipment of City of Portland owned telecommunications lines and equipment, street lighting, or traffic signal systems, except as authorized by the City.
The "guidelines for street corners," which are here, are pretty clear about where objects like newsracks are and aren't supposed to go. Here's what they say:
B2 DESIGNING AND IMPLEMENTING CORNER IMPROVEMENTSHere's the illustration on the last point. No newsracks are supposed to go anywhere near the corner -- they're to be five feet back from the extended property line:
B2.1 Obstruction-Free Area
Since the corner area must accommodate a concentration of pedestrian activities, and since sight lines need to be maintained for all street users, it is important to maintain an area that is free of obstructions.
B2.1a Obstruction-Free Area Defined
The obstruction-free area of a street corner is the space between the curb and the lines created by extending the property line (or the line of a public walkway easement) to the curb face, as shown in the adjacent illustration. Signal poles, street lights, telephone poles, hydrants, trees, benches, signs, controller boxes, private uses, and other vertical elements should not be located within this area.
Keeping these elements out of the Obstruction-Free Area should not result in placing them in other locations where they are an obstruction to pedestrians, such as the Through Pedestrian Zone in the Sidewalk Corridor.
The obstruction-free area of a street corner is the space between the curb and the lines created by extending the property line to the curb face. All new or reconstructed corners must have curb ramps.
B2.1b Exceptions to Obstruction-Free Area
Exceptions to the obstruction-free guideline include bollards to separate pedestrians from traffic, and low posts for pedestrian call buttons at actuated signal controls....
B2.2 "No Private Use" Area
To provide enough space for all the hardware that must be accommodated near the corner area, and to ensure good visibility at the corners, private temporary uses such as street vendors, sidewalk cafes, A-boards and newspaper vending machines are not permitted in an area 1.5 m (5'-0") back from the extension of the property line at any corner, as shown in the adjacent illustration.
There's probably more, but that's all I've been able to dig up about the legal side of these things. I hope that some knowledgeable readers can tell me what I've got right and what I've got wrong about the current state of the law in this area.
However we come out on that, tomorrow we'll head out to a corner near us and see how the newsrack folks are doing in complying with the city's rules and guidelines. If you're interested, why not go out to a corner near you and do the same? We can compare notes tomorrow.