Loiterers warned to keep it moving

Westminster pushes to rid nuisance for businesses

May 20, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,SUN REPORTER

"You cannot ride your bikes on the sidewalks of a business district," Cpl. Jesse Clagett yelled to two young men pedaling onto the brick path of Locust Lane, pausing as he filled out tickets for two other males who had repeatedly ignored his warnings.

Clagett, who patrols downtown on a bike for the Westminster Police Department, has increased his surveillance hours along this central courtyard across from the city's public library branch in the past week.

Some Westminster residents and business owners seem to think it's making a difference.

Nearly 20 loiterers have been hanging out near businesses along Locust Lane and the public library across the street in downtown Westminster since April, cursing and shouting, smoking and sometimes drinking in public, city officials said.

But the loitering laws of past decades have basically been declared unconstitutional, leaving police with limited ways to curb this public nuisance, Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding said.

To improve the situation, Spaulding and Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson recently met with Toni Pomeroy, who recently opened a jewelry store in the old David's Jewelers location on Main Street.

Outdoor tables and chairs were removed from Locust Lane's brick courtyard Tuesday, to discourage loitering. Spaulding and Ferguson said Westminster may try to designate Locust Lane a city park, so rules of conduct could be enforced.

"We're going to be able to resolve it if we dedicate it as a park and then apply rules of behavior and expectations," Ferguson said. "So then if people violate those rules, then we have the ability to ban them from the parks."

Removing the courtyard's tables and chairs is only a temporary solution - "putting a Band-Aid on a sore finger," Ferguson said.

Once the city's "Lunch on the Lane" concert series resumes every Friday in June, the tables and chairs will have to return so concert-goers have a place to sit, Ferguson said.

He said such entertainment events bring a positive atmosphere and attract residents to the Locust Lane courtyard.

Business owners and landlords are trying to encourage more commercial activity in this heart of downtown.

But Dave Baxter, the Covington Properties landlord of the Locust Lane Center office building, said he recently lost a prospective tenant who was knocked over by a drunken individual along the lane.

"That hurts, because the thing is, the gentleman, depending on how many employees he has, that's more people to come down and shop during lunchtime," Stan Ruchlewicz, Westminster's economic development administrator, said of the loss of the tenant.

The Sun's Carroll County bureau is one of Baxter's tenants in the Locust Lane Center.

Ruchlewicz said a more family-friendly atmosphere along Locust Lane is key to Main Street revitalization efforts.

"We don't want anyone to be verbally abused or affected," he said. "When [the loiterers] are out on the street and the sidewalk, that's a challenge to control."

Pomeroy, who worked at David's Jewelers for eight years before opening her own store in the same location, worries that the public nuisance was discouraging mothers with young children from shopping downtown

But Pomeroy said she has seen an improvement since Westminster police increased their presence in the area.

"We've already seen more families coming down, and that's what we wanted to do," she said. "It's having that police presence that's made a huge difference."

Baxter said plans for an ice cream shop in the vacant space next to the Kountry Kafe, at the edge of the Locust Lane courtyard, could further improve the atmosphere.

"We don't want a few negative issues to slow down our progress in trying to bring Main Street back to its former vibrant location," Baxter said.

By the week's end, fewer people seemed to be congregating along Locust Lane, and those who showed up were chatting and sitting more calmly on the courtyard's ledges.

"It's a lot better, and I'm a lot happier," said Leroy Sheeler, 66, who said he is homeless and enjoys a good rapport with local police. "I don't like a lot of noise, hooting and hollering and carrying on."

Across the street, Jim Emerick of the Cockeysville-based Risk Management Consultants, is the security guard who enforces the public library's rules of conduct. The county-owned park outside the library has rules: no smoking in the park; no trespassing after library hours.

Patty Sundberg, the adult services supervisor for the Westminster library branch, said loitering is nothing new.

"It's an ongoing problem all along Main Street," Sundberg said. "There are not a lot of places young people can congregate."

The group that gathers on Locust Lane appears to be circulating throughout downtown.

"We're leaving," one young woman told Clagett on Thursday afternoon, as if seeking permission from a parent. "We're taking my son to the park."

"Remember the time the park closes," Clagett warned.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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