City of Frederick ponders camping rules

Occupy Frederick camped in Carroll Creek Linear Park, made statements about society and raised at least one question it did not answer.

Who is allowed to camp on city property?

Officially, no one is. The city’s legal team is working on an ordinance to provide objective rules that limit campers’ stay, ensure sanitary standards and apply to all equally.

The city has no ordinance that regulates camping on city property. Past requests have been granted to allow Boy Scouts to camp overnight near Harry Grove Stadium and at Baker Park, aldermen said.

Some city parks, such as Carroll Creek Linear Park, are open 24 hours a day, but no sleeping is allowed.

If Frederick decides to allow any camping, an ordinance will help keep the city from being accused of subjectively granting and rejecting requests, said Rachel Depo, assistant city attorney.

“You’d have to have a reason to say no,” she said.

Unrestrained camping could create problems because there are few public restrooms, trash receptacles may not be sufficient, and grounds could be damaged, aldermen said Wednesday.

Contacted by phone after the meeting, Robert Fisher, who participated in the Occupy Frederick encampment from Jan. 21 through 28, said an ordinance might obstruct the message groups like his want to send. The point was to send the message where people had to see it, he said.

His group did not ask for permission to camp at the Carroll Creek park, but police contacted them about what would be allowed.

Occupy Frederick did no damage, aldermen and police said Wednesday.

Its less tidy counterparts around the nation, however, raised the specter of what could happen if future campers are less peaceful and create problems, they said.

“I think the Occupy issue raised questions all over the country,” Alderman Michael O’Connor said.

If the city decides to allow camping, Depo asked aldermen whether they would limit an applicant’s stay to a couple of nights and restrict the number of times an applicant could get permission each year. The application could require the names of all of the people who were going to join the camp, she said.

Fisher said limiting campers to a couple of nights would not be fair.

“I do think that would be in conflict with First Amendment rights,” he said.

Under the proposal, a well-organized group could skirt the ordinance’s intention and create a semi-perpetual encampment, Frederick police Capt. Kevin Grubb said. Individuals could apply for successive permits so the applicant of record would change every couple of days, while the group would not have to leave.

Grubb said he and Frederick police Chief Kim Dine saw unsanitary conditions at Occupy D.C. sites. It could happen here, he said.

Fisher said his group used restrooms at a nearby restaurant and bars until managers asked them to stop. That is the kind of request that motivates the Occupy movement, he said.

“If I’m not spending money in some capacity, does that mean I don’t have a right to speak,” Fisher said.

Fisher lives in Frederick, is employed and showered at home, he said.

Some homeless people joined the Occupy encampment, and they represent one aspect of the movement, he said. If everyone had a right to a place to live, it might not seem necessary to camp in public places to send the message, he said.

“Really, what Occupy wants is for people not to have to sleep outside,” Fisher said.

He did not want to comment on whether the group plans to camp again.

It is complicated to draft an ordinance that balances enforcement with the public’s rights, Depo told aldermen.

“There are a lot of potential constitutional issues involved,” she said.

The legal department is still researching before presenting a final draft to aldermen, City Attorney Saundra Nickols said Thursday in an email.

Alderwoman Kelly Russell recommended adopting an ordinance before warmer weather arrives, in case camp plans are being made.

“You just don’t know what’s going to come,” O’Connor said.

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