Plans to revitalize Munn Park were on the minds of city commissioners during a two-day planning retreat this week. Discussions ranged from regulating the feeding of homeless people by charity organizations to adding recreation and also the possibility of closing off some or all of the streets surrounding the downtown park.
The discussions took place Tuesday and Wednesday at the city’s annual strategic planning retreat as the city is contemplating ideas for turning what City Manager Shawn Sherrouse calls a “passive green space” into a family-friendly park for gathering, games, food and music.
“I understand the community concerns that are out there so there are a couple of cases that I wanted to discuss,” City Attorney Palmer Davis said, regarding feeding indigent people in Munn Park. “Anything is possible in this part of the regulation arena.”
He discussed two legal cases decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The first one was decided in 2021 regarding the group Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs and its weekly food-sharing events in downtown Stranahan Park. The group said it held the events “in order to communicate the group’s message that scarce social resources are unjustly skewed towards military projects and away from feeding the hungry” and that “food is a human right, not a privilege, which society has a responsibility to provide for all.”
“These organizations are very skilled in framing the issue in terms of a First Amendment issue,” Davis said. “Another First Amendment issue that will come up and get in this arena is the free exercise of religion clauses in the First Amendment.”
Fort Lauderdale’s rule was that “parks shall be used for recreation and relaxation, ornament, light and air for the general public. Parks shall not be used for business or social service purposes unless authorized pursuant to a written agreement with City. As used herein, social services shall include, but not be limited to, the provision of food, clothing, shelter or medical care to persons in order to meet their physical needs.”
The penalty for violation is up to $500 or 60-days in jail.
“The 11th Circuit found that the city had ‘a substantial interest in ensuring the ability of its citizens to enjoy whatever benefits the city parks have to offer’ and in mitigating the sanitation and other logistical problems that crowded food distribution events cause,” Davis explained. But he added, the “11th Circuit struck down the park rule because it imposed a permitting requirement without any standards to guide City officials’ discretion over whether to grant a permit. The rule simply banned social service food sharings … and the lack of standards allowed for arbitrary enforcement and even discrimination based on viewpoint.”
The City Attorney’s Office prepared this report for city commissioners:
The second case originated in Orlando.
First Vagabonds Church of God and Orlando Food Not Bombs began feeding the homeless and conducting church services in Lake Eola Park in 2005.
Following complaints from residents in the surrounding neighborhood, Orlando enacted an ordinance to regulate feedings of large groups of 25 or more people at central public parks, requiring sponsors of feedings within the Greater Downtown Park District to obtain a permit, and the ordinance limited the number of permits that a group could obtain for any one park to two per year.
The groups sued in 2005, but the 11th Circuit ruled that the City of Orlando “has a substantial interest in managing park property and spreading the burden of large group feedings throughout a greater area.” Orlando Food Not Bombs could obtain two permits a year for each of the 42 parks in the Greater Downtown Parks District. The ordinance did not restrict the number of large-group feedings Orlando Food Not Bombs could sponsor at any of the other 66 parks located outside the Parks District and said the group could hold as many political rallies, demonstrations and distributions of literature in Lake Eola Park or any other park as it liked.
Davis cautioned the City Commission as they try to decide what can be done to allow residents to enjoy the park while accommodating the rights of the homeless: “It’s just a war of attrition. It’s very expensive litigation, so be prepared for that. If you want to go down this road, but it is possible to show that … there are other approaches.”
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said she was reminded of charity work she did in Orlando with Best Buddies International, when she had to obtain a permit for a picnic and reserve a pavilion.
“I’m just trying to delineate in my mind and get some clarity on how this doesn’t have a ripple effect that affects how we manage our parks in general,” Roberts McCarley said.
Davis said Orlando is now treating public feedings as a special event requiring a permit when there’s a certain consistency.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden said she was perplexed. “So even if we have a special event, but it was cause-oriented, we’d still get a permit right?” she said, to which Davis responded “typically.” “So why is this content or cause outside of the parameters that other causes that want to have a protest or a political event, that they require a permit?”
Davis said the legal issue arose in the Orlando case because the city limited permits to two per park per year. In Lakeland, though, when someone applies for a special event permit, city staff looks at the size of the event and determines what different things a group would need in terms of sanitation, portalets, and law enforcement.
Davis said some cities that struggle with the issue simply have no rules or structure in place.
Commissioner Mike Musick said that when he organized several 5K charity races, he had to get permits or he couldn’t hold his event or would get in trouble.
“It seems like these people aren’t getting in trouble and they’re not following the few rules that we do have,” Musick said. “So what can we do in the interim? Or is anything we do going to cause us a problem — and just because it’s gonna cause a problem doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
Davis said city officials can cite someone for not getting a special event permit.
City Manager Sherrouse stepped in, telling commissioners that they have sent parks and recreation staff and police officers to talk to the groups.
“I have gone down myself and talked to some of these individuals and, you know, the response that we get is that, you know, the city may be an authority, but we’re not as high an authority as the one that they’re serving — I mean, that’s what they told me directly to my face,” Sherrouse said. “And then we run into issues of, well, then who are we citing? If we’re going to do a citation and there’s 12 people standing there as part of a feeding, are we citing all 12 with a citation? It becomes very difficult to manage and we’ve been very careful, you know, not to run into issues where we’re viewed as being, you know, unsympathetic to the cause by, you know, taking enforcement actions.”
Musick said the communication he has been getting is from residents asking the city to do something.
“So what do we see that something is?” Musick asked.
Davis said there is a blurry line between randopm acts of charity and what has become a “normal event” nearly every day in Munn Park.
Mayor Bill Mutz has been a proponent of creating a tiny house village to help transition homeless people into sustainable housing, but he was met with opposition to that and it fell by the wayside several years ago.
Mutz this week proposed that Davis write an ordinance regarding feeding the homeless in Lakeland parks that the commission could then vote on. He said commissioners have to deal with this issue before they create a revitalized play area that residents might feel reluctant to use if there are people in Munn Park trying to cope as best they can with mental illness and hunger issues.
“You can hide behind the veil in terms of responsibility instead of recognizing it,” Mutz said. “We want to simply create ordinance that is an enforceable tool to be able to recapture our parks while we often consider the needs of others in other places at intervals that are controllable. And that’s all we’re trying to do. To go beyond that is to play mnemonic games on what we are allowing and not allowing and we need to define it … Otherwise we’re kicking this ball down the road another six months or a year … Let’s do what we’ve listened to from citizens the entire time we’ve been commissioners and start to take formative action as we do these other integrations. I’m all for that. But let’s get all of our tools in our toolkit. Let’s not say we’ll work on that one next year … I would recommend we take a vote on this as to whether or not to begin that process.”
Commissioner Stephanie Madden said the city needs to reach out to groups like Talbot House, Lighthouse Ministries, the Salvation Army and Parker Street Ministries to get cooperation and coordination. She said she didn’t want people to think that they don’t love homeless people or that they don’t have compassion for them.
“We do and we’ve, you know, shown that in the past, but maybe it’s time to work again with our stakeholders and identify some of the gaps and then we can know — do we just enforce the laws that we have, but then we also have support from our nonprofits to say yes, we are in favor of the following,” Madden said.
Davis said he would draft suggested ordinances for the commission to consider.
On Wednesday, Sherrouse presented to the commission the results of a recent poll in which more than 1,700 resident indicated what they wanted to see in the park.
More than 1,000 people said they wanted to see lawn perimeter benches and a shade structure, while between 1,000 and 700 wanted a front lawn, colorful planters, public art, food and drink concessions, and historical markers. Nineteen people were still advocating for a carousel, although Parks and Recreation Director Bob Donahay has said that the upkeep and maintenance would be too costly.
“We know that, number one, in terms of satisfaction with our citizens, was the availability of parks and recreation,” Sherrouse said. “But also we have the opportunity to increase awareness of specific holes in recreation … The revitalization of our downtown, which certainly ties to the revitalization of Munn Park, is a personal passion of mine.”
Sherrouse has already overseen several changes, including the string lights hung across Kentucky and Tennessee avenues, drip lights in Munn Park’s live oaks, and parklets and expanded sidewalks in front of several restaurants.
Sherrouse took a recent trip to Carmel, Indiana, and was impressed with the amenities in its downtown park. They provided things like a permanent ping-pong table, shuffleboard and a bocce court. He noted that Lakeland has two recent downtown apartment complexes – NoBay and Mirrorton – with another in the works on Oak Street. Young people, he said, are moving downtown and will be walking to its heart to look for things to do.
“Munn Park itself is still under-utilized by the general public and the reason for that is because there’s simply nothing to do in the park except for sit on a park bench,” Sherrouse said. “It is a 100% passive public park and it brings some issues with it being a 100% passive public park.”
Some of the things proposed in Lakeland include a parkour obstacle area, a dog park, a giant chess/checkers board, bocce and shuffleboard courts, swings, small take-away eateries and a covered picnic area that could double as a stage for music and entertainment.
Nearly 1,000 people wanted swings added to the park, with nearly 700 asking for the giant chess/checkers board.
But something came up during the meeting that Sherrouse said might take their plans back to the drawing board for some tinkering. Some city commissioners were in favor of closing off some or all of the streets around Munn Park and making them pedestrian plazas.
“If there’s an appetite for that, that would likely significantly change the way that the park could be designed,” Sherrouse said. “And so if we get a feel for that, well, again, we may want to start over and think about working with the engineer or with the consultant to see what a design would look like to include.”
Madden said she would be in favor of closing all the streets around the park.
“To be able to take a chance, this chance, to say if you were at Harry’s or Jimmy John’s and just walked right across the street with your picnic lunch and didn’t have to worry about cars and traffic,” Madden said. “I think that would be a game changer.”
Mutz said that while the survey favored a continued passive use of the park, he wanted to see more recreational activities in the park.
“I would highly recommend that you come back with a complete approach to us with the other sidewalk expansions that we deem to be at least the right ones,” Mutz said.
Deputy Parks and Recreation Director Pam Page summed up the commission’s task.
“Munn Park has been a central feature of our downtown since the 1800s and we’re very respectful of where it’s been,” Page said. “It is our responsibility to bring it into the next century and so it can be utilized and enjoyed by our current citizenry.”
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