Whether DeWitt Park can be occupied is being debated between the City of Ithaca and Occupy Ithaca participants.
On Dec. 9, a request by members of "Occupy Ithaca" for a permit to use DeWitt Park was denied by the Superintendent of Public Works Bill Gray. The application was submitted initially on Nov. 23, but revised on Dec. 5. Occupiers requested maintenance of an encampment and a waiver of the park's curfew. A special request was made that after the initial permit expired on December 19, it would renew automatically in two-week increments as long as there were no code violations. The superintendent noted in his reasons for denying the request that "No limitation on number, size, type or location of tents [was] specified" in the application.
"The basic issues are the continuous occupancy, the undefined duration of the event, and the magnitude of it," explained Gray in an interview, "It can ebb and flow and we don't know what size it is - we don't know what we're agreeing to. And underlying the three issues (the duration, the magnitude, and the continuous occupancy) is the liability question that has to do with the event.
"We require people to provide us with insurance for events that they are conducting. And we do not have insurance. They haven't relieved the city of any liability associated with their being present there," he added. "They regard their purpose as being public, so they think they should be exempt from all of these things- that it's an ongoing event. It needs to be addressed. They see it differently than the city does."
In the list of reasons for the denial of the application, Gray noted that the issuance of the permit would be inconsistent with the terms of the agreement between the city and the First Presbyterian Church, which owns the park, as well as being inconsistent with the city regulations regarding parkland. He also noted that the permit is subject to other regulations: Camping is not a permitted use in the city, per zoning ordinance, residential facilities are not a permitted use in parks, residential use requires appropriate sanitary facilities, and large tents require Building or Fire Department approval. The Superintendent pointed out finally, that, "I note for the record that neither permit application was submitted in advance of your group's commencement of use of the Park (for tents, etc.), which is a requirement of Chapter 336."
When asked what the plan was Monday morning, occupier Logan Bell responded, "I don't know if there really is a plan. There's a lot of different individuals that have reacted differently. There's only about five people that are actually sleeping here. I guess we don't really know until we actually have an eviction notice and the City of Ithaca uses force to remove us. Then we may see people consolidate in solidarity, I think. People do recognize, a lot of people recognize that we have a right to be here and that this is important."
He then noted that he believed people would continue to stay despite the denied permit. Other ideas that have been discussed are moving indoors, moving to occupy another area and "making them start the process over" or to march somewhere else completely - like Cortland, said Bell.
"I don't think anybody really knows what they're going to do until the police give us a time," he said.
A meeting took place Monday afternoon between the occupy group and the city. Gray said that it is likely that there will be a petition before the Board of Public Works on Dec. 14. He also said that the occupiers suggested the city look at agreements that have been made in Buffalo and Rochester between the cities and their occupying group.
"The discussion seems to be ongoing," he said.
"There's already a legal precedent for people camping on land that's under city control in the jungle," argued Bell, "The law hasn't been enforced there. This is actually private property. It is a matter of legal interpretation whether we have a right to be here."
"According to the deed that the city's not in-compliance with- this should be called the ‘people's square,' not DeWitt park," he added, "It should be open for use unrestricted as a place for people to contemplate. It should be fenced according to the deed, which it's not. So as far as legal precedent and compliance there's a lot of questions there that need to be brought to city council and to the courts. But based on that information I do believe we have a legal right to have a legal presence here past 10 pm. I don't think that curfew is legal, basically. It's not within the city's authority."
"I don't think we need a permit," Bell clarified, "I'm not trying to defend the permit process. I'm trying to defend our legal right to be here based on the constitution and what the legal precedent is this city for enforcing zoning laws for camping. It seems to be pretty loose."
"If there's already legal precedent, and they're not evicting people from the jungle, and they haven't for years, can they legally evict us?" asked Bell, "So that's a good question that needs to be answered."
Gray said the two situations were different.
"The jungle is all or mostly private property," said Gray in response to the question Bell raised, "In addition it's not parkland. The city owns a fair amount of land and we don't have rules specifically set up for addressing how those lands will be used. The issue of the jungle has come up before. For instance, people have been camping out in Southwest Park from time to time - the city has removed them once or twice. Those are not parkland, and the city has actually - I've sat in on a number of meetings where the city has been negotiating with social service agencies and other individuals representing the county, and police forces and other things trying to figure out what happens if the city removes the homeless group. And I don't think these people are homeless, so I don't think that applies."
It does seem, however, that the Occupy Ithaca participants will continue to remain steadfast in their assertion they are within their rights to remain at DeWitt Park, which they've renamed Shawn Greenwood Park.
"It is my hope that Ithaca will stand up for these people standing up for us," said Laura Rose, who identified herself as part of the 99%.
She stated her belief that the denial of the permit has created a situation appropriate for civil disobedience.
"I think that they made the proper permit application and that we should support them being here," Rose explained, "They've been very good neighbors, they're very open to discussing with the city any concerns, and even reaching compromises. But as far them breaking the law, I mean they're taking a stand for people's rights and that should be protected by our government. Hopefully they will continue to stay, and should they be forced to leave, I and others in the community will come down to support their right to stay here."