City board rejects bid to oust sanctioned homeless campsite in Park Hill

One of the sanctioned campsites has been in the parking lot next to Denver Community Church in Uptown. (Courtesy of Colorado Village Collaborative)

Residents opposed to city-sanctioned homeless campsites, particularly in the parking lot of Park Hill United Methodist Church, were dealt another loss Tuesday, as a city board denied their appeal to overturn the Denver’s “safe outdoor space” zoning provisions.

The Denver Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 to deny the appeal filed by eight residents, which included the nearby homeowners who filed a lawsuit in May against the Park Hill site that was subsequently dismissed by a Denver district court judge.

The Park Hill campsite opened in June, and is one of two in the city operated by the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative. It has 33 tents, and can house 40 people. The second campsite is on the campus of Regis University.

The Denver City Council in October gave authority to the zoning administrator to approve the temporary campsites, but some Park Hill residents contended Tuesday that she did not act within the scope of what she was allowed to do.

Tina Axelrad, the city’s zoning administrator, said she followed the city’s zoning code and the determination was valid for the safe outdoor sites.

“The fact that the SOS site was temporary was critical in my (zoning) comparison exercises because this is not going to stay there,” Axelrad said.

Axelrad said the needs of the city’s increasing homeless population prompted her to extend the duration of the sanctioned campsites to Dec. 31, 2023, but she would need City Council approval to extend it beyond then.

The campsite in Park Hill is only permitted until the end of 2021.

Board member Charlie Young said the sanctioned campsites, like tiny homes, are allowed in all zoning districts as they are not permanent structures. But he said the city ordinance should have addressed concerns about safety and health, which the Board of Adjustment does not consider.

Rev. Nathan Adams of Park Hill United Methodist Church said the site has been clean and quiet and that he has received feedback from people who agree with him.

“SOS provides safe space and is making opportunities (for people to get housing) a reality,” Adams said.

The City Council approved a contract with CVC in February for almost $900,000 to operate the campsites. The organization also operates two tiny home communities for homeless people in Denver.

Cole Chandler, executive director of CVC, told board members his organization’s goal is to serve homeless people over the next two and a half years. He said the two sites, previously located in Uptown and Cap Hill, have provided much needed assistance.

“There was ample evidence that this had been widely successful,” Chandler said. “The pandemic is not over for people experiencing homelessness. Unvaccinated people are still required to use masks in our facilities.”

The people who appealed the decision pointed to zoning in neighborhoods where the city’s code would prohibit such a temporary use, but the board disagreed and said the temporary shelters are allowed citywide.

Kurt Monigle, one of the people who sued the city over the campsite, argued it deteriorates the neighborhood and goes against the zoning code by allowing inconsistent land use.

Monigle said he is not against homeless people, but they need more permanent and effective help.

“In this case, it’s clear the design standards have been discarded … in favor for less desirable, temporary solutions,” he said.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Dave Rodman, Jean-Baptiste Varnier, Justin Lacov and Blair Taylor.

Varnier attempted to show slides about health and safety concerns he had with the campsite, but board members pushed back, saying that his points were not relevant to zoning issues.

Leah Capritta, an attorney, said the city did not give enough notice to nearby residents about the Park Hill campsite coming in, and that the decision infringes on homeowners’ rights.

“The zoning administrator exceeded her constitutional authority, acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner,” Capritta said.

There was no in-person point-in-time count in 2021 due to the pandemic, but Denver city officials have estimated between 1,200 and 1,500 people could be living on the streets.

The Board of Adjustment isn’t done discussing the Park Hill campsite just yet. On July 27, it will hear another appeal relating to the issuance of the specific zoning permit authorizing it.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Tuesday’s hearing dealt with established of the sanctioned homeless encampments in general, although much of the conversation focused specifically on the Park Hill site.

One of the sanctioned campsites has been in the parking lot…

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