SOUTH JORDAN — Spurred by a growing number of makeshift campsites cropping up along the Jordan River, South Jordan has adopted its first anti-camping law.
The South Jordan City Council approved in May an ordinance to ban camping on public property within the city — similar to ordinances that have already been adopted by other cities in Salt Lake County.
"This just gives our officers another tool that they can use when they approach these camps to educate the public about what's allowed in this area and what's not," Steven Schaefermeyer, the city's planning director, said Wednesday.
Camping has always been a concern along the Jordan River Parkway Trail in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake, but it appears to be growing and spreading north and south, said Dale Keller, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Health.
"It's not real common here, but it's certainly moving south," he said.
For South Jordan, instances of encampments, trash and health hazards — including drug paraphernalia and human waste — along the Jordan River have seemed to increase over the past year or so, Schaefermeyer said.
"And that's left our officers and code enforcement trying to figure out some tough situations," Schaefermeyer said.
Previously, officers did not have a concrete way to prevent camping in public areas, said South Jordan Police Chief Jeff Carr.
"It's difficult when you don't have an ordinance in place to try to deal with the type of activity you're trying to prevent," Carr said.
The new ordinance defines camping as "the use of public property as a temporary or permanent dwelling, lodging, residence, living accommodation or sleeping accommodation," as well as storing personal belongings or lying down on bedding to sleep.
Previously, anti-camping ordinances — as well as anti-panhandling ordinances — have drawn concerns from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, arguing that criminalizing people for sleeping in public when they might have nowhere else to go may violate their constitutional rights.
But Schaefermeyer said South Jordan attorneys believe the law is written in a way to safeguard against that.
The aim of the ordinance, he said, is not to criminalize offenders, but to help police officers keep the community clean and safe while also connecting people who might be experiencing homelessness with help.
"Not all these people that camp along the trail or in parks are doing it because they don't have a place to go; they may choose to do that," Schaefermeyer said. "But some people may need homeless resources to help them … so it gives our officers an opportunity to also educate on what resources are out there for housing and other assistance."
Schaefermeyer said a violation of the ordinance will also only be an infraction, similar to a parking ticket, and officers will give out warnings first before any infractions.
Carr said the ordinance isn't just for people who are camping because they're homeless. He said it also applies to others who may illegally camp for recreation.
"It's just not going to be tolerated," Carr said.
Contributing: Jed Boal