"It is such an important decision," Penny Elder, vice-chair of the Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals, said during a July 27 hearing on a challenge filed by multiple Park Hill residents opposed to zoning administrator Tina Axelrad's decision to issue a permit for the safe-camping site, which has been operating since June under the auspices of the Colorado Village Collaborative, a nonprofit organization.
Rather than vote at the end of that meeting, boardmembers opted to seek legal counsel and then issue their ruling on August 3. Four of the five members of the board would need to vote in favor of the appeal in order for the permit to be revoked.
Park Hill residents had filed three separate appeals of the decision to allow a safe-camping site at the church; during the four-and-a-half-hour hearing on July 27, they argued that the permit should not have been issued because of the site's proximity to the church's preschool and its lenient drug policy, as well as the perceived lack of public engagement before the permit was issued and the zoning administrator's alleged failure to get input from other agencies before issues the permit.
"We just think that it’s very rushed and not very well thought-out by all of the departments," says Marty Harrison, one of the Park Hill residents who filed an appeal. "I’m not pinning that on [Cole Chandler] or CVC or anyone. I think that’s on the city to come up with a better plan on how to manage forty people."
"The city and the CVC can dress this safe outdoor space up in whatever benign language they want, but when it comes right down to it, we are discussing the establishment of a homeless shelter on the same property as a preschool. This is objectively bananas," Dave Rodman, one of the other appellants, said at the July 27 hearing.
"I think that was a concern of ours as well, and that’s why we added in so many additional precautions," Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, says of the site's proximity to a church that houses a preschool. Chandler notes that the CVC conducted background and sex-offender checks of potential residents, located a smoking section away from the preschool, and hired a private security firm to be present on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The July 27 hearing was the second time the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals heard complaints about safe-camping sites. After a hearing on July 20 challenging the zoning administrator's right to allow for safe camping sites in general, it ruled against the appeal.
Park Hill residents had decided to file the general appeal and a specific challenge to the Park Hill site in May, after a Denver District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by five neighbors of the church who wanted to prevent the safe-camping site from going up. The judge determined that the plaintiffs had not exhausted all of their possible administrative remedies — namely, appeals to the Board of Adjustment — before filing the lawsuit.
"We’re really ready to have this behind us, because we need to focus on safely and effectively operating our site and making plans for what happens to our site at the end of this year," says Chandler. "Being caught in a cycle of appeals and litigation prevents us from doing that, to the detriment of everyone in the neighborhood."
Nonprofit service providers have been operating safe-camping sites for people experiencing homelessness in Denver since December 2020. Two sites in other church parking lots in Capitol Hill had leases that ran through May. In addition to the Park Hill site, there's currently another safe-camping site on the Regis University campus. The two sites, which have leases that lapse at the end of December, have a combined capacity of 100 people.
The safe-camping site model caters to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, giving them a chance to live without fear of getting swept by city authorities while also accessing job and housing placement services. Denver has up to 1,500 people living on the streets, city officials estimate.
Tensions remain high among some of the neighbors in Park Hill.
Harrison emailed Westword on July 28 to say that residents along Glencoe Street near the church had woken up to find slashed tires on their vehicles.
"While we do not know who did this, the fact that it occurred the night of our zoning permit appeal hearing is inescapable. I know you can understand how we feel that this likely was not a mere coincidence. We have alerted the City and asked that they condemn and discourage all retaliatory and intimidating acts," Harrison wrote.
But Harrison later concluded that the appellants might not have been the target of a retaliatory attack.
"We’ve had really good communication with Cole and with his lawyer," Harrison says. "And they sent us some footage last night of somebody driving by shooting off bottle rockets as well. It seems like it’s more random to us. But at the same time, just the coincidental timing of all these tires being slashed with the hearing was a little jarring to everybody around the neighborhood."
"I don’t know what it was about," Chandler adds. "We posted on our Facebook page that next morning about that incident. But our staff responded in the middle of the night to what they thought was some teenagers breaking into a car outside. They ran outside the front gate and basically caused the kids to run away."
The neighbors who oppose the safe-camping site may not go as quietly.