SOUTH SOUND SIDEKICK: Sidewalks, politeness and the law in downtown Olympia

By Volcano Staff on January 11, 2013


South Sound Sidekick series offers advice from experts living in the, well, the South Sound. It posts every Friday. Today, The Counselor is back with his take on the Olympia City Council's decision to restrict lying on some sidewalks in downtown Olympia.

Dear Counselor,

I am so torn about the people I see sitting and lying on the streets in downtown Olympia. Some seem so young, others old - all invoke sympathy from me. Yet, at the same time, I feel for the downtown business people and the folks who live and shop downtown. What's your take on the whole thing?

Well, this whole issue has been in the news quite a bit lately. I did some research for your question. I spoke with downtown business owners, advocates for those who live on the streets and representatives of the law enforcement community. I also spoke with social service advocates for those described below with the H-word. Then I did some legal research to get the law.

First and foremost, you will not see the H-word used in this article. You know the word that begins with H and ends with "less". No, I will not use that word. Why?  Because after speaking with the aforementioned groups it became clear to me that the people you see on the street make up less then 10 percent of the H population. In other words, only one out of 10 people you see on the street should be labeled with the H-word. Everyone wants to use the H-word because it evokes sympathy and an emotional response. It is extremely paternalistic. Better call them kittens - "Oh how cute, oh how vulnerable, let's take them home." Not.

Not only is grouping the vast majority of street people as "H" heartbreaking ignorant. It is also just plain wrong.  It also diminishes those that properly are called "H' and does nothing to improve their lot.  There are some very good organizations that are working very hard to address the H-word. The organizations are making steady progress.  Next time you are about to give a dollar to someone on the street think instead about sending a couple of dollars to:

Anyone of these organizations will make way better use of your dollar then the guy on the street. OK, enough about the H-word.

What's up with sidewalks?

OK, this can only be tackled with a mini-law class on Real Property law. The sidewalk and the ground under it belong to the property owner - not the city, not the county and not the state. The sidewalk and the ground under it belong to the property owner.

Said property owner is liable for bad things that happen on the sidewalk most of the time - although there are always exceptions when it comes to the law. Got it? I am not making this shit up.

A city, county or government can and routinely does obtain and easement over the private property of the landowner. But this only gives the public the right to travel across this piece of land. It does not grant any other use.  Cities routinely require landowners to build, pay for and maintain sidewalks.  But the ultimate ownership and liability is with the property owner.

In Washington state, the property owner owes the following to people walking on the sidewalk. ...

A possessor of land owes a common law duty to prevent artificial conditions on his land from being unreasonably dangerous to highway travelers. The duty is founded on the principle that [t]he public right of passage carries with it ... an obligation upon the occupiers of abutting land to use reasonable care to see that the passage is safe. This duty applies to those passing by on a public walk. Munger v. Union Sav. & Loan Ass'n, (1933).

Criminal acts of third parties are general not the liability of the property owner.  But still if you sit all day every day on my sidewalk and your dog bites one of my customers.  We all know who is going to get sued and it ain't no street person.

The business owners I have spoken with only want to have a clean, safe environment for their customers to shop in. Part of this is making the street view and entrance to their shop as inviting as possible. Come on you do the math. Dirty sleeping bag? Pit bull?

What about the cops? 

They want the same thing we all do: a safe, friendly tolerant world where we can all be respectful, courteous and polite. Guess what? I am not joking. If law enforcement cannot have this, then they want clear enforceable laws that allow them to do their job with the least amount of ambiguity. They would really rather educate then enforce. They would rather resolve a problem then make an arrest. But, it all comes back to politeness and respect.

So in answer to you question, let's all try and be polite, respectful and tolerant of each other. You folks on the street: That is someone else's property you are sitting on; it is someone else's livelihood you are affecting. Those of you wishing to give money to the problem: Give it to one of the groups I have listed.

Repeat this mantra: polite, respectful, polite, respectful.

Sidewalks are private property.

The Counselor

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