PORTLAND – City councilors may move Tuesday to further restrict where street art vendors can set up their tables on city sidewalks.
The City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee is expected to decide whether the city should prohibit street art vendors from setting up within 10 feet of a retail establishment and on sidewalks less than 8 feet wide.
The committee also will meet privately with its attorney to discuss the threat of a lawsuit stemming from a February decision to require street art vendors to register with the city prior to setting up on the street. The registration is free, but vendors would have to display their registration while selling their wares.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine threatened to sue the city if the registry requirement is enacted by the full council, which has yet to vote on the matter.
The city has said the aim of the registry is to ensure artists received a copy of rules for sidewalk displays, which are limited to 12 square feet and must leave 4 feet of sidewalk for pedestrian passage. But during a public hearing in February, many artists backed by the ACLU of Maine said the registry violated their First Amendment rights to free speech.
On Monday, the legal director for the ACLU of Maine said it opposes any limits on street art vendors.
“Restrictions on street artists raise significant First Amendment concerns, and we’ve already notified the city that enacting such restrictions could be in violation of the Constitution,” Zachary Heiden said. “We hope the committee will take this possibility very seriously, and make the right decision not to waste time or taxpayer money on a law that is unlikely to pass constitutional muster.”
The ACLU of Maine has not been in communication with the city about the registry since the February public hearing, but councilors want to meet with legal staff to discuss any potential lawsuit, said Trish McAllister, the city’s neighborhood prosecutor.
“I think everyone’s just waiting to see what happens when this goes to the council,” McAllister said Monday.
City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who leads the committee, could not be reached on Monday.
The additional restrictions to be debated Tuesday include a proposal to prohibit the vendors from setting up within 10 feet of an open, nonfood retail establishment. City staff has drawn up a map of nonfood retail establishments in the Old Port that shows most – if not all – of Exchange Street, as well as significant portions of Wharf and Fore streets, as being off limits to vendors under the 10-foot rule.
The committee also may take action on a proposal that would set a minimum sidewalk width for street art vendors, McAllister said. A proposal to prohibit street art vendors on sidewalks narrower than 8 feet would rule out Market, Silver, Fore and Wharf streets, and portions of Moulton Street.
The city has been wrestling with street artist regulations since 2011, when concerns were raised about vendors selling items they don’t make. Also, concerns were raised about artists setting up tables on sidewalks, making them impassable.
About 60 businesses signed a petition, asking the city to crack down on the street art vendors, which they claimed blocked their doors and stole their business. The Portland Downtown District has favored cracking down on the vendors.
In 2012, a city task force decided to better educate artists about the rules, which prohibit vendors from setting up on benches and using displays larger than 12 square feet, and require them to leave a 4-foot-wide path along the sidewalk for pedestrians.
It’s unclear whether the committee will be able to formally reconsider any previous decisions, McAllister said. Those decisions included establishing the free registry and prohibiting art vendors from a portion of Bell Buoy Park.
The committee meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. in Room 24 at City Hall.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org