Gilchrist Park aerial view

Punta Gorda officials say people sleeping in Gilchrist Park has become a problem.

PUNTA GORDA — Punta Gorda is known for its many harborside parks, attracting tourists and families for the views and other activities.

But lately those attractions are bringing in another kind of park-goer — and a different kind of view — that has city officials questioning if they should put more restrictions on their city parks.

“There is an ongoing problem with people living and sleeping in the parks (Gilchrist and Laishley) overnight,” said Mayor Lynne Matthews at a July 15 City Council meeting. “They’re not just doing laundry, they’re bathing in the bathrooms and that’s a whole different problem ... that’s nasty.”

Matthews went on to say that she has received complaints about people washing their clothes and hanging them on the bushes and other places in the park.

“They are using our facilities for ill means and that has really been the problem,” she said. “There has been a situation on numerous occasions where some of those people have taken over the park pavilions, excluding the people that want to have picnics there.”

The City Council held a discussion at the July 15 meeting on ways to put a stop to this.

“I don’t know how we move forward and be fair and equal to all,” Matthews said, “because we can’t segment out one demographic of the population and say certain people can and cannot use the park.”

City Attorney David Levin told the City Council that they do have options such as closing the parks and/or their facilities overnight or to draft an ordinance prohibiting camping in the city parks but that might not solve the problem.

“We can’t prohibit people from just sleeping in the park,” Levin said. “We do have the authority to impose time limitations on when the park is open and whether you can restrict the open portions of the park such as the Harborwalk to be open where the rest of the park is closed.

“I’m certain we can do that but the enforceability of that may be more difficult.”

Enforceability also poses an issue for the city should they eventually put a law in place regarding park restrictions.

“Are we going to be creating a situation for our Punta Gorda Police Department where they are going to be issuing citations and it’s going to be the same person all the time and the same citation and (if so) to what end,” said Vice Mayor Debby Carey.

“I think about the boaters (in Charlotte Harbor) who come (though the parks),” she continued, “and if they are staying at the (Laishley) marina, maybe they want to have a late night or early morning breakfast and sit on the pavilions.”

Potential restrictions for the city parks are only in the beginning stages at this point.

Levin said he is discussing a potential ordinance with Police Chief Pam Davis.

“We need to have something enforceable for the police department because right now we don’t have that,” Matthews said.

Levin and city staff will be presenting a draft of the potential restrictions at a future City Council meeting.

The City Council will be on summer break until the Aug. 25 meeting.


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