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Springs Council passes panhandling ban, drilling regulations

Two hot topics come up for vote Tuesday at City Hall

Panhandling, Drilling Approved by CS City Council

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Two long-discussed issues received final consideration from the Colorado Springs City Council after a long session Tuesday.

First, the council by an 8-1 vote, approved a new ordinance banning panhandling downtown.  The ordinance officially is called the Downtown No Solicitation Ordinance.

Then the council by a 6-3 vote, agreed to new regulations for oil and gas drilling.  The decision creates a framework for approving site plans for a drilling operation.  The first such operation within city limits is scheduled next year in the Banning Lewis Ranch area.

The panhandling ordinance has the support of city leaders and the business community, which are concerned about public safety and damaging tourism.  However, it's been criticized by the homeless and people in other neighborhoods where panhandling is considered an equal or greater problem.

Eric Verlo, a member of the local board of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the city can expect a legal challenge as soon as Wednesday.

"This is kind of an attack on our freedom of expression," said Verlo.  "The right to ask somebody for help is the most basic of our freedom of speech."

The ACLU has scheduled an announcement at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, at the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, 332 West Bijou Street in downtown Colorado Springs.

The ordinance takes effect Sunday.  The punishment for violations could range from verbal warnings, to fines, to possible jail time.

The lone dissenting vote came from Councilman Val Snider.  He said he favors the ordinance in theory but criticized the Council for what he described as rushing the approval process.

Opponents fear the ordinance will only send panhandlers into other neighborhoods, such as the city's west side, and worsen problems there.

City Hall was filled to capacity Tuesday for the vote on oil and gas drilling.  More than 30 people spoke during a public comment session.  Most of them opposed the regulations because of health and environmental concerns.

The vote was described as a decision on hydraulic "fracking," a technique in which chemicals, water and sand are forced underground to access pockets of oil and natural gas.  Communities across the country where fracking occurs have complained of toxic fumes and contaminated drinking water.

But Kyle Campbell, the city's interim planning director, said the vote did not specifically involve fracking, only drilling regulations that ultimately may or may not include fracking operations. 

"Fracking is somewhat synonymous with the oil and gas industry as far as what the opposition looks at," said Campbell.  "The state handles more specific aspects of fracking.  I don't know why everyone thinks we're talking about fracking."

The state normally controls drilling operations, and according to some sources, state officials and the drilling industry oppose any effort for municipalities to seek local control.  Council President Scott Hente, who voted against the regulations, said he will continue to seek more local control.

Ultra Petroleum, a company with offices in Denver, Wyoming, Texas and Pennsylvania, has applied for two state drilling permits in the Banning Lewis Ranch area.

Some Council members expressed concern about the quality of air and water near drilling operations, while others said the regulations could create more jobs and boost the economy.

Councilwoman Lisa Czelatdko became emotional while explaining why she supported the regulations.

"This is a community-changing decision," she said, fighting back tears.  "I take great offense from a lot of people who dismiss the work that the nine of us do up here.  A vote for this is not a vote against the community."

Councilwoman Jan Martin joined Hente and Snider in voting against the regulations.

"It's really hard to be able to filter through all of the information and know what's true," she said.  "I'm not sure we actually know at this point."

Before the vote, Citizens For Community Rights, a local organization, protested outside City Hall in opposition to the regulations.  About two dozen people held signs that read, "No Fracking" and "Don't Frack This Up."  Members say they will watch what happens closely.

"We all were asleep at the wheel," said CFCR member Dave Gardner.  "People didn't know how dangerous (drilling) is.  They didn't know it was happening.  We have no business doing this inside an urban area."

Colorado Springs is the state's first major municipality to act on drilling since Longmont voters voted three weeks ago to ban fracking.  However, Hente said the state is now suing Longmont over that decision, and Colorado Springs must be concerned about similar the possibility of similar action by the state.

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