Nearby residents seeking to remove a city-sanctioned homeless encampment outside the Park Hill United Methodist Church have filed another lawsuit against the city after losing appeals to a city board in recent weeks.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Denver District Court seeks an order to invalidate the city’s Board of Adjustment for Zoning’s determination that the campsite can be placed outside the church at 2045 N. Glencoe St., or anywhere else in Denver. It also seeks to invalidate the “temporary use” permit that was issued by the city for the campsite.
Residents previously filed a lawsuit in May to have the campsite removed, but it was dismissed weeks later because the plaintiffs had not yet gone before the adjustment board.
The plaintiffs in the new case are an unincorporated nonprofit called Denver Deserves Better, along with residents Leah Capritta, Kevin Reidy, and David and Ella Rodman.
The latest lawsuit focuses on the fact that locations for the individual campsites are approved not by the Denver City Council or Mayor Michael Hancock, but rather by city zoning administrator Tina Axelrad.
It argues that her decisions “circumvent the legislative process, without public notice, without a hearing and without the involvement of any accountable, elected official.”
“The Zoning Administrator is not elected. She’s not even appointed by anyone who is elected,” the lawsuit reads. “Yet, in late 2020, after years of political debate over how Denver should deal with people experiencing homelessness, the Zoning Administrator suddenly decreed that she could allow homeless encampments anywhere in the City at any time, and that she could approve such camps at her whim, all through an administrative act called a ‘determination of unlisted use.’”
The defendants in the latest lawsuit are the city of Denver and the adjustment board. Calls and emails to the Denver City Attorney’s Office were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The lawsuit argues the encampments “cater to the subset of Denver’s homeless population who are unwilling to use the services of the City’s many shelters.”
The Park Hill campsite has 33 tents and can house 40 people. It and another sanctioned campsite on the Regis University campus are operated by the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative.
“Denver deserves racially and economically diverse neighborhoods,” CVC Executive Director Cole Chandler said in response to the suit. “People deserve homes. A privileged few shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of delivering on those core tenants of a just and equitable city.”
The appeal from residents to the city’s adjustment board to have the decision to permit the campsite overturned did not receive enough votes on Aug. 3 to sustain it.
Two weeks before that hearing, the board also heard arguments about the authority the zoning administrator had to grant permits for homeless encampments anywhere in the city, but that appeal was also not sustained by the board.
The residents argued during board hearings that state law prohibits certain businesses, like liquor stores, from operating within 500 feet of places where children are constantly present and that the determination to allow a campsite at the church should be overturned. They also had multiple concerns about safety and drug use related to campsite visitors.
There is a preschool operated by the church with an entrance on the other side of the building from the campsite.
Campsite operators told the board that the camp’s residents are not allowed in the church or near the preschool.
In both appeals, neither of the zoning board’s votes were unanimous.
At the Aug. 3 hearing, board member Nancy Burkhart defended the health and safety plan submitted with the permit application by CVC, saying it covered a broad range of issues, but she said she wished the organization had done more outreach with the neighborhood before setting up the site.
Board member Penny Elder said she had concerns with the process in which the permit was issued.
“It just seems to me this was just whipped through the process of checking boxes instead of taking the time to look at not just the health and welfare or the safety of the nearby preschool and homes, but even in the encampment itself,” she 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, and Chandler told the board in July that there are no plans for CVC to try to stay at the Park Hill site past Dec. 31.