Council allows restaurant use of Plaza

By Kelly Kenoyer
Lebanon Local

Lebanon City Council members decided to allow Conversion Brewing to temporarily set up tents in Strawberry Plaza to serve food and alcohol.
The decision came after much debate at their Jan. 13 meeting, which was attended virtually by the full council: Mayor Paul Aziz, Rebecca Grizzle, Michelle Steinhebel, Jason Bolen, Wayne Rieskamp, Wayne Dykstra and Karin Stauder.
The owner of Conversion, Matt Cowart, asked the council to allow him to put up food service tents around Strawberry Plaza for outdoor dining for the next 180 days at no cost.
“We felt it would be more beneficial to the public for us to use the space in Strawberry Plaza that is currently not being used in the wintertime rather than take up space in sidewalks or alleys,” said Cowart, whose brewery and pizza restaurant are located next to the plaza. “We’ve asked for multiple smaller structures.”
Typically, the city allows citizens and businesses to rent out Strawberry Plaza for $75 per day, but Cowart said he wouldn’t be able to manage that as the business is currently not profitable due to COVID restrictions.
While most of the councilors expressed interest in allowing this use of the plaza, several were concerned about giving exclusive use of a public park to a single local business for no cost.
“I have a real ethical issue with virtually blocking out a public place and letting a private business use it exclusively,” Bolen said.
Steinhebel suggested a more limited time frame than the full 180 days, and Bolen agreed.
“One day is a minor inconvenience to the public. 180 days is half a year,” Bolen said. “I think that’s a serious concern when you talk about public property funded by public funds; the public has an expectation to have access to it.”
“In 60 days or 90 days, when the weather gets better, the public will really want to get in there,” he added.
Grizzle asked City Manager Nancy Brewer what her views were on the proposal, and she said it was largely up to council because it’s a policy decision.
“Using it for an exclusive use over a long period, it’s really not the same playing field that we were talking about with the other restaurants,” Brewer said, referencing the sidewalk tables some restaurants use downtown.
“We didn’t feel like we could, as staff, decide to give exclusive use to one restaurant to a specific park that’s a community asset.”
Grizzle, who also is executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, said she viewed the proposal as public good, “because these are extraordinary times.”
“People have nowhere good to eat out in Lebanon,” she said, noting that the restaurant would be able to continue employing its staff of 12. Cowart had said the restaurant would likely need to close down if it didn’t find a solution that would allow for more seating.
Bolen suggested automatically reviewing the policy of allowing Conversion Brewing on the plaza if the county’s COVID designation goes from extreme to high.
Stauder said she’s uncertain about the entire plaza going to the restaurant.
“Why can’t a section of that be done so that the public can still use a piece of that park?” she asked.
Cowart said his options are limited because he only has a few different sizes of tents, and getting alternatives is almost impossible because of merchandise shortages.
“As of right now, the easiest way to put a tent up is right in the middle, and that would interfere with the walkway,” he said. “Friday and Saturday is probably the only day we’ll have it full out there.”
But, he said, “At this point any space could help.”
Ultimately, the council agreed to allow Conversion to use the plaza, but that a portion of the park will be open to public use. Conversion’s liquor license will apply to the entire plaza, however.
Additionally, the council directed staff to review the policy after 60 days, and then revisit after four weeks when the county’s designation changes.
In other business, the council:
♦ Heard from attorney Jeff Clayson, a member of the Morley Thomas law firm, which provides city attorney services to the city, that Lebanon’s ordinance related to homeless camping is “probably unconstitutional,” citing two recent court cases that found city ordinances violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The city’s ordinance restricts camping of any kind in public spaces or parks to “specifically designated areas” and limits it to 10 days during a four-week period, though extensions may be granted by designated city staff. Violators can be fined up to $500, jailed up to 30 days, or both.
Two recent court cases in Boise and Grants Pass found in favor of homeless plaintiffs, and determined a Boise ordinance forbidding sleeping in an outside public area, when there are no other reasonable alternatives available, was “cruel and unusual.” In the Grants Pass case, the 9th Circuit Federal Court ruled that sleeping on the streets is “an unavoidable consequence of being homeless” and a city cannot restrict that activity unless it offers an “alternative sleeping space,” Clayton said.
“Sleeping is a natural function of being a human, everybody needs to be able to sleep, so on the off chance a person has no where else to sleep, they can’t sleep outside,” Clayson explained.
However, municipalities can set limits on time and place when it comes to sleeping on public property, he explained. But a city can’t “criminalize the status of being homeless.”
Additionally, cities can’t limit a person’s ability to protect themselves from the elements if they need to sleep outside, he said. That outcome came from the Grants Pass ruling, which was related to a case where the police cited a woman for camping and trespassing because she walked through a park with a blanket around her waist.
“The court came out saying this was going too far, you can’t ban sleeping in all parts of the city at all times,” he said. “A person has the right to take the minimal steps necessary to protect themselves from the cold while they are sleeping outside or trying to survive the elements.”
Cities aren’t required to create a shelter, he added, but they also “can’t impose any kind of penalty unless there was a reasonable alternative to sleeping outside.”
Clayson noted that House Bill 4001, sponsored by House Speaker Tina Kotek, would have declared homelessness a state of emergency. He said the bill didn’t make it through the legislative process in 2019 due to the Republican walkout, but he said if it passes down the road there would be $40-$60 million in grant money available for shelters, public hygiene, etc.
“We need to be able to establish an area where, if a person is found in the park sleeping, they can tell them you can’t sleep here but you can go sleep over there.”
Stauder, a retired police officer, said some municipalities give 48 hours of notice, but Stevenson said such notice, while practical, doesn’t necessarily overcome the issues in the courts.
“We don’t really have a place for them to go,” he said. “All our beautiful parks we worked so hard to clean up are now in jeopardy of being overtaken by individuals who have no other place to go.”
He added that Medford provides an encampment for the homeless, and suggested the council take a trip to tour the program.
“The biggest thing to remember is… if we don’t take any action or come with any kind of solution, we’ll end up with an ordinance that doesn’t allow anything to be done,” he added. “I would love to be able to get in front of this as much as we can.”
Grizzle said she wants to help locals, but doesn’t want to make the city a draw for the homeless. “We don’t want to attract people from Indianapolis who hears that Lebanon is a cool place to hang.”
♦ Reappointed Bolen as council president, all voting in favor except him; he said “no” with a chuckle.
♦ Heard results of a financial audit on the city of Lebanon’s 2019-20 financial year.
The city saw a 4.7% decrease in revenue compared to the previous year. However, the city also reduced its debts by $2.6 million, or 3.9%.
Auditor Steve Tuchscherer said, “The city is in a good financial position, in my opinion.”
♦ Voted unanimously to annex a 3.98-acre parcel of property on Russell Drive into the city. It was annexed as medium density residential zoning.
♦ Unanimously approved an update to the ordinance on the city’s alcohol impact and enhanced enforcement area. The update cleans up language, but also expands the boundary of the area to Oak Street to the south and Grove Street to the east.
Police Chief Frank Stevenson said the department has seen an increase in calls from businesses and residents in the area, and the increased area would allow the department to exclude individuals from the sidewalk across the street from Ralston Park, and not just the park itself.
♦ Accepted a letter of resignation from Karin Stauder, who represents Ward 2, who is moving to central Oregon with her partner. Stauder complimented city staff for their hard work. She said she is resigning because she and her partner are moving out of the area. The council unanimously passed a resolution to declare the seat open. The council will hold interviews for possible candidates who wish to fill the position, Aziz said. (See page 5 for details).