Reports of illegal activity on the multi-use safety path – whose construction, officials hoped, would deter such behavior – have prompted the village to consider new ways to address the problem.
The village constructed the winding blacktop from Essex High School to Main Street in 2016 with the help of a Vermont Agency of Transportation grant and a local investment of nearly $100,000. Officials said at the time they hoped the path would eliminate drug and criminal activity there by sprucing up the area, and spruce up it did. But some residents say not much has changed.
“It really just put a cosmetic fix on the issues,” said Joe Kudrle, a Grove St. resident who recounted calling Essex police a handful of times over the last two years to report unsavory behavior on the path, which is located right behind his property.
Kudrle blamed the activity on a retaining wall where people often congregate to drink and hang out. They often throw trash into his backyard and along the path, he said, adding two months after residents cleaned up the path on Green Up Day, litter had already reclaimed a presence.
“I can’t tell you how depressing [that] was,” he said.
Trustee Lori Houghton echoed both his concerns and his assessment for their cause. She said the wall is the only place she finds people hanging out along the path and described it as the only place in the community where she hesitates before walking down.
“Now it truly is a safety hazard,” she said, “because we’re saying to people, ‘Please walk on our path,’ but, ya know, there’s some stuff going on.”
Houghton asked staff to consider fencing off the retaining wall or installing plantings above it to deter people from sitting. Municipal manager Evan Teich said staff will return at a future meeting with some structural options.
But he suggested staff and the trustees consider ways to address the underlying issues, too, worrying structural changes may only move the problem elsewhere. “If it’s a homeless thing, if it’s a mental illness thing, if it’s a drug addiction thing, we [should] have the resources at the right place at the right time,” he said.
Police Chief Rick Garey explained there’s only so much his department can do given its reported staffing shortage that’s all but diminished its proactive policing.Even if they did have the time, however, there’s not much to enforce since the village doesn’t have a loitering ordinance. Unless people are clearly violating some other state or local law, Garey said, “You can’t tell them that they can’t hang out.”
He said there may be a way to address with the issue through a vagrancy ordinance, which he planned to share in the coming months. Officials voiced support for such an ordinance in late 2016 after the village had to undergo a monthslong court process to evict a homeless veteran who was living in front of the Essex fairgrounds.
And if the people congregating in that space are dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues, Garey said he can try to connect them with the community outreach team, a group of four social workers created earlier this year to help six Chittenden County towns, including Essex, respond to citizens with unmet social service needs.
Still, he agreed the best answer for now is making sure people can’t sit in that area.
“If they can’t sit to drink, they’re typically not going to stand there,” Garey said.