Denver Board Postpones Vote on Park Hill Safe-Camping Site Challenge

The safe-camping site just off Montview Boulevard.
The safe-camping site just off Montview Boulevard. Evan Semón
Fresh off hearing a general challenge of the city's right to allow safe-camping sites across Denver, on July 27 the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals considered three challenges related to the current safe-camping site in South Park Hill.

After a hearing that lasted almost five hours, members of the board said that they would vote on the issue next week, after consulting with attorneys regarding some legal questions.

"To me, it's infuriating that we're having to continue to do this," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit organization that has been running a safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness in the parking lot of Park Hill United Methodist Church since June. The site provides ice-fishing tents for people, bathrooms and a centralized access point for services.

A total of 28 Park Hill residents filed three separate appeals challenging the Denver zoning administrator's decision to grant a safe-camping site permit for the parking lot outside the church.

On July 20, the board voted 3-2 to reject a challenge of the Denver zoning administrator's right to allow safe-camping sites around Denver.

Tina Axelrad, the Denver zoning administrator who made that decision, says she was gratified by the board's rejection of the challenge.

"When making the initial zoning determination, the city was careful to ensure that operators of these sites would have measures in place to provide for the safety of their guests as well as reasonably address the concerns of neighbors," Axelrad says. "We’ve seen the positive outcomes of this work, with the first two Safe Outdoor Sites having worked very well, and we look forward to continuing to make these spaces available for the residents who need them."

The challenges to the safe-camping site program came after five Park Hill residents filed suit in early May in Denver District Court to block the not-yet-open church site. Judge A. Bruce Jones quickly dismissed the case, stating that the plaintiffs had not yet exhausted all of their possible administrative remedies, in particular an appeal to the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals.

In her appeal to the board over the Park Hill safe-camping site, Leah Capritta, an attorney and Park Hill resident, said she was concerned that there aren't enough safeguards in place regarding the site's adjacency to a daycare center located at the church.

Capritta also filed an appeal that was considered at the July 20 hearing. "Aside from providing one warm meal a day and a place to shower and shoot up, the camps offer no real path for productive citizenship and reinforce the habits leading to drug abuse," she said.
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Park Hill United Methodist Church shares its building with Temple Micah.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
In response to neighbors' concerns, the Colorado Village Collaborative, Park Hill United Methodist Church and Greater Park Hill Community Incorporated signed a good-neighbor agreement on July 1 for the site. That  agreement designates people with certain backgrounds as not eligible to live at the site, including individuals with "serious mental health concerns"; individuals whose "abuse of alcohol, marijuana, or illegal drugs becomes harmful to themselves"; sex offenders; and people with a violent criminal conviction within the last five years.

According to Chandler, there have been no issues with the daycare center, and any other complaints have been minor.

"I'm really tired of dealing with this," he says. "I'm really tired of neighbors not being willing to just put this behind them and make it work for a few months."

The lease for the Park Hill site runs through the end of the year. In partnership with the St. Francis Center, the Colorado Village Collaborative is also operating a second safe-camping site in a parking lot on the Regis University campus.

Prior to the establishment of the Park Hill and Regis University sites, Denver had two other sites, both in Capitol Hill, that opened last December. The leases for those expired in May.

Update: This story was updated on July 28, to include the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeal's decision to postpone a vote until early August.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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