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The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue those who harass or intimidate them.

The move has been hotly debated in online forums where it has drawn fire from some motorists who say they are being unfairly targeted. Cycling enthusiasts have defended the measure, saying incidents of roadside abuse are widespread.

The issue has surfaced amid the county's ongoing struggle to maintain and modernize a vast and crumbling road system, one that some critics say is ill-equipped to handle the growing ranks of recreational and commuting bike riders.

Opponents of the measure, however, were a no-show at the board meeting Tuesday. Several cyclists attended to support the board's action.

Advocates have advanced the ordinance as way to offer a clearer path to civil court remedies for bicyclists and pedestrians and limit hostility toward those road users.

They said the board endorsement sent a clear message.

"This brands Sonoma County as a place where harassment isn't tolerated," said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, the main group behind the proposal.

Sonoma County is set to become the first county in the country to adopt such an ordinance, following in the wake of several cities, including Sebastopol, which adopted its "vulnerable user" ordinance in December. The county's formal approval is scheduled for the Board of Supervisors meeting next week.

The measure had strong support from Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has worked with advocates and law enforcement officials on bicycle and pedestrian safety. She hailed Sonoma County as a "international destination" for bike riders, noting the growing local presence of the sport, seen in both professional and amateur events.

"This is about our quality of life here in the county," Zane said. "This is about safety and civility."

Several other supervisors pressed county staff for answers on how the ordinance would change current law.

Critics say protections already are in place to punish those convicted of serious car-versus-bike crimes, and any ordinance targeting lesser incidents risks meddling in a murky area of law.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said he understood cyclists and pedestrians already can sue for general harassment and intimidation.

While that is true, Deputy County Counsel Linda Schiltgen said, there are no laws specifically involving civil harassment of pedestrians and cyclists. A local ordinance would change that but would not necessarily require criminal enforcement, county officials said.

In the unincorporated area of the county, it would prohibit:

Physically assaulting or attempting to assault a bicyclist or pedestrian.

Intentionally injuring or attempting to injure, either by words, vehicle or other object, a bicyclist or pedestrian.

Intentionally distracting or attempting to distract a bicyclist.

Intentionally forcing or attempting to force a bicyclist or pedestrian off a street for purposes unrelated to public safety.

The ordinance also would prohibit pedestrians and cyclists from physically or verbally abusing other non-motorized users of county roads.

Supervisor Mike McGuire sought and received board support for changes that more clearly exempted interactions between road users for the purpose of public safety.

"It's so that a honk from a motorist or a polite shout would not be seen as harassment," McGuire said.

Critics have harped especially on that point, saying behavior by cyclists -- blowing through stop signs or riding in wide packs on narrow rural roads -- is widespread and needs to be called out when it happens.

"Their feeling is they own the road," said Larry Robert, 53, a Santa Rosa resident opposed to the ordinance. "If I want to go by and say, 'Idiots, ride in single file,' I have a right to do that. As far as I'm concerned, that's freedom of speech."

Robert added that he did not condone swerving at cyclists or other aggressive acts by motorists.

Cyclists acknowledge greater education is needed in their ranks to ensure traffic laws are followed.

But abuse from other road users doesn't help, they say.

"People are using bad behavior on the part of some to justify being hostile or physically trying to hurt people," said Helfrich, the bike coalition director. "We don't tolerate that in our society. It's called being a vigilante."

Supervisor Susan Gorin said she saw unsafe activity by all road users on a daily basis. But she called the ordinance "essential to increase consciousness about the vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians."

The proposal was initiated in the aftermath of a series of vehicle crashes in the county in the past two years that have seriously injured or killed cyclists and pedestrians.

One involved a driver chasing a local cyclist onto a golf course and attempting to run him down with his car, authorities said.

The driver, Harry E. Smith, 82, of Santa Rosa faces a number of charges, including attempted murder. The cyclist, Santa Rosa restaurant owner Toraj Soltani, 48, continues to recuperate from his injuries, including a badly fractured wrist.

"It's just incredible that something like that happened in our county," Helfrich told the board. "I hope it never happens again."

In other cities where similar ordinances are in place -- Los Angeles, Berkeley, Washington, D.C., and Sunnyvale -- no cases have been brought forward under the new legal protections, county officials said.

Unlike the city laws, many of which offer prevailing parties triple monetary penalties -- a provision aimed at enticing attorney interest -- damages and fees under the county ordinance would be left up to the discretion of the court.

Advocates say just the mere existence of the laws has reduced cases of harassment reported by bicyclists.

But Carrillo and Supervisor David Rabbitt voiced concern that the new ordinance would lead to a false sense of security for cyclists and pedestrians.

They called for a broader education campaign to improve relations among road users. Those efforts could include signs advising users of the new county law and clearer safety directions on county roads frequented by cyclists.

"I want to make sure that what we do here is not just a flurry of activity," Rabbitt said. "I'm supportive, but it's only one step along a path that could go much further."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.