Board wants answers before Park Hill homeless campsite vote

The city’s Board of Adjustment for Zoning will decide whether the permit for a homeless campsite at Park Hill United Methodist Church is valid. (Eric Heinz photo)

Members of a Denver city board deciding the fate of the permit allowing the Park Hill temporary homeless campsite to operate said Tuesday they will vote on it next week.

Some of the members of the Board of Adjustment for Zoning said Tuesday they wanted answers to specific legal questions before deciding whether the city’s zoning administrator properly approved the temporary permit for the “safe outdoor space” in the parking lot of the Park Hill United Methodist Church.

Three appeals were filed by four residents who live near the campsite to try to invalidate the permit.

Last week, appellants argued more broadly that a city official didn’t have the authority to permit temporary campsites anywhere in Denver, not just solely in Park Hill. But the board narrowly rejected that argument in a 3-2 vote.

“The last thing I want to do is not make this decision now,” board member Frank Schultz said. “Because one way or another it’s going to get contested. But I just want to make sure I make the right decision on certain facts that are still not clear to me.”

The board went into closed session at one point during the nearly five-hour hearing to consult with an attorney.

The sanctioned homeless encampment has been operating since June 23. The church gave nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative permission to use the parking lot to operate the campsite.

Appellants said they were not adequately alerted when CVC applied for the permit, and they said the use of the church’s parking lot as a temporary campsite does not fit within the established neighborhood nor the zoning at the church.

Sarah Baker, an attorney working with the appellants, said there are schools and places of worship within 1,000 feet of the Park Hill campsite. Other appellants said the city has been much stricter in prohibiting certain businesses from operating near schools and youth centers.

“The appellants support the city in its efforts to provide a compassionate (solution to homelessness),” Baker said. “As we said last week, the position is difficult and politically unpopular.”

The Park Hill campsite has 33 tents and can house 40 people. There is a similar site operated by CVC on the campus of Regis University.

Cole Chandler, the executive director of CVC, said he did more outreach than was required to obtain the temporary zoning permit by talking with neighbors and hosting several community meetings.

“I’m trying to meet a significant need that exists in our city right now, and I think we’ve found an effective strategy in the interim,” Chandler said. “We have some additional screening requirements that force us to tell some people, ‘No,’” and that they can’t stay at the campsite.”

Chandler said there are no plans for CVC to try to stay at the Park Hill site past Dec. 31 when the lease ends.

“That’s a commitment to the church and … within our good neighbor agreement,” Chandler said.

Several nearby homeowners filed a lawsuit in May against the Park Hill site, but it was subsequently dismissed by a Denver district court judge.

“You heard Mr. Chandler underscore that not only is drug use anticipated, but he employs a harm-reduction model that it’s OK (to use drugs at the campsite) as long as you’re not being loud or not being violent, but that’s not the requirement,” said Leah Capritta, an attorney and one of the appellants. “Are other people breaking Colorado law within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing?”

Including the campsites the coalition oversaw that used to be located in Cap Hill and Uptown before moving, Chandler said, “In six months of operating, we’ve had no problems with our residents and children.”

Chandler said in addition to requiring sex offender and background checks before someone moves into the campsite, the coalition has put up fencing around the tents and prohibits people who stay there from entering the church or going near the children’s recreational areas.

Neither of the campsites at Park Hill nor Regis University are currently at capacity, Cole said.

Rev. Nathan Adams of the church said even with the loss of the parking spots, his congregation levels are still not back to where they were “pre-COVID.”

The city’s Board of Adjustment for Zoning will decide whether the…

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