La Jolla group seeks high-level input from S.D. on how to curb ‘so-called First Amendment’ sidewalk vendors

Vendors are pictured at Scripps Park in La Jolla before enforcement of San Diego's restrictions took effect in February.
Sidewalk vendors are pictured at Scripps Park in La Jolla before enforcement of San Diego’s restrictions took effect in February. Local residents have expressed concern about the continued presence of some sellers.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Parks & Beaches members say sellers operating under a free-speech exception to San Diego’s ordinance are creating a ‘resurgence’ in vending at shoreline areas.


The continued presence of sidewalk vendors in La Jolla’s shoreline parks — especially sellers operating under a First Amendment exception to San Diego restrictions — is bothering members of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches board. So much so that the board wants to get the opinion of the city attorney’s and mayor’s offices about what can be done to curb those activities.

“I have seen an increase in vendors over the last few weeks ... not just in La Jolla but other areas as well. It’s out of control in Pacific Beach and Balboa Park,” LJP&B President Bob Evans said at the board’s March 27 meeting. The “so-called First Amendment” vendors account for much of the “resurgence,” he said.

The issue, Evans later told the La Jolla Light, is twofold:

• Sidewalk vendors are continuing to sell their merchandise and claiming exemption from enforcement “because they are exhibiting their freedom to express their religious or political rights.”

• There is a lack of regulation of free-speech-related operations.

“The vendors that set up today (except for a few legitimate and sincere religious groups) are bullying the rangers and city enforcement and threatening lawsuits that their constitutional rights are being violated,” Evans said.

Further, he said, “there are no restrictions or laws in the books about First Amendment-related assembly, such as the size of tables, location, materials, etc.”

LJP&B members also voiced concern recently about vendors operating on a donation basis, which also is not regulated by San Diego’s sidewalk vending ordinance.

La Jollans say sidewalk vendors are starting to re-emerge at shoreline parks using a possible loophole in San Diego’s regulations.

The City Council passed the ordinance last year and it took effect in most of the city June 22. But its restrictions focusing largely on where vendors can operate could not be enforced in coastal communities while awaiting review by the California Coastal Commission. The commission agreed in August to withdraw its review and allow enforcement in the coastal zone.

That enforcement began Feb. 1 and is carried out by rangers.

The ordinance includes regulations for permitting and health and safety and aims to block vending year-round at La Jolla’s Scripps Park, Children’s Pool, Coast Boulevard boardwalk between Jenner and Cuvier streets, and on main thoroughfares in some business districts, such as the boardwalk at La Jolla Shores, according to local officials. Vendors are allowed to continue operating on the cross streets and side streets in those areas.

After coastal enforcement started, there was an initial absence of vendors at key spots in La Jolla such as the Children’s Pool and Scripps Park. But a resident complained a few days later after seeing a few vending tables and canopies set up at Scripps Park, near La Jolla Cove. She said she also had seen an artist displaying his paintings for sale in the park. Other residents have since made similar complaints.

City spokesman Benny Cartwright told the Light in February that those vendors were operating under San Diego municipal code language that allows for activity protected under the First Amendment.

Cartwright said that includes selling items such as newspapers, bumper stickers and buttons but also allows “a broad interpretation of what expressive activity is, including art, painting and handmade jewelry.”

He said the city is required to allow park space for First Amendment activity, provided it does not block walkways and emergency access.

Steve Hadley, representing the office of City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said at the LJP&B meeting that people should keep sending comments to the councilman’s office so the concerns can be relayed to other offices, such as the city attorney and mayor.

“We continue to be frustrated with the whole process,” Hadley said. “But we don’t want people overstepping where there may be fine lines. It helps if we continue to say that it is getting worse. We’re looking for frustration to pass along.”

Senate Bill 946, a state law that took effect Jan. 1, 2019, intends to “decriminalize” sidewalk vending by prohibiting criminal citations and penalties against sellers but allows cities to impose limited regulations if they focus on “health, safety or welfare” and not on keeping vendors out of business districts for competitive reasons.

LJP&B trustee Ann Dynes wondered during the meeting if other areas facing the First Amendment issue have tried other remedies. “Are there opinions issued by more enlightened city governments that we could bring to the attention of the city attorney?” she said.

Representatives of the city attorney directed the Light’s questions to the mayor’s office. Mayor’s representatives were not immediately available for comment.

— La Jolla Light staff writer Elisabeth Frausto contributed to this report.