Clarkson zoning battle: Judge's ruling further muddles group home flap

Last summer Denver District Judge Ann B. Frick ruled that city zoning officials blundered in issuing a rooming-house permit to Open Door Ministries, which was seeking to launch a group home for recovering alcoholics and addicts in a historic block of Capitol Hill. But Frick has now reversed her order to revoke the permit, saying that a "manifest injustice" would result if ODM is forced to shut down the operation and relocate the borderline-homeless residents.

The latest ruling is a frustrating setback for adjoining property owners involved in a costly legal battle against the conversion of the Bennett-Field mansion at 740 Clarkson Street into ODM's Lighthouse boarding home. They maintain that the city never should have issued the permit in the first place, and that ODM hasn't established that it would suffer the dire consequences Judge Frick wants to avoid by leaving the permit intact.

As detailed in my 2011 feature "Meet the Neighbors," ODM acquired the 6,700-square foot property at a short sale for $700,000, planning to use it as a residential-treatment facility for recovering male addicts and alcoholics. Neighbors, however, complained that the area was already saturated with group homes, and ODM's bid for a "transitional housing" permit for the operation was twice denied by city officials.

A city "anti-clustering" ordinance requires that large residential-care facilities be at least 2,000 feet from each other and that no more than two can exist within a 4,000-foot radius of any newcomer. There are already three such facilities less than 4,000 feet from 740 Clarkson.

But ODM did obtain a room-and-board permit for the property, allowing it to move its clients into the house. (Another judge subsequently ordered them to operate certain portions of their program off-premises.) That R&B permit was obtained before ODM even purchased the house, on December 30, 2010, the last day such a permit could be sought before the area was down-zoned in a manner that prohibited such uses.

Judge Frick found that the permit was issued improperly, and neighbors have maintained that the permit was obtained with the aim of operating the full Lighthouse program in spite of the anti-clustering ordinance.

"That permit would not have been allowed in our neighborhood under the new code," notes Jesse Lipschuetz, who lives next door to 740 Clarkson and has been fighting ODM in court. "I think it was nothing more than a tactic to get around the ordinance."

But ODM executive director David Warren has maintained that his organization relied in good faith on the city's action and would be harmed if the permit was revoked. Judge Frick's latest ruling, granting ODM's motion for summary judgment, declares that ODM's reliance on the permit was reasonable and that the alternative would force the ministry "to move out its residents, incur the costs of selling the property, and suffer reputational harm."

Lipschuetz disagrees. He points out that the ministry bought the house for less than its appraised value and could conceivably profit from its sale. He also points to several documents in evidence that suggest ODM was repeatedly informed that it needed to obtain "transitional housing" status for its operation and proceeded with the room-and-board plan anyway.

"We don't think they proved any damages or lost any money in the deal," Lipschuetz says. "You really have to show your reliance [on the city's action] was reasonable and that there was manifest injustice."

Lipschuetz says he hasn't decided yet whether he will appeal Frick's ruling. From our archives: "Denver's group homes and shelters: What's on your block?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast