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Board Rejects Administrative Appeal of Safe-Camping Sites in Denver

The safe-camping site just off Montview Boulevard.EXPAND
The safe-camping site just off Montview Boulevard.
Evan Semón
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On July 20, the Denver Board of Adjustments for Zoning Appeals rejected a challenge of Denver zoning administrator Tina Axelrad's decision to allow safe-camping sites across the city.

The board's 3-2 decision came after more than four hours of testimony by Denver residents, including some who had appealed Axelrad's initial decision. After that decision came down in May, five individuals had sued the City of Denver, Park Hill United Methodist Church, pastor Nathan Adams and the Colorado Village Collaborative to block the establishment of a safe-camping site in the church's parking lot in South Park Hill.

Denver District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones quickly dismissed that lawsuit, determining that the plaintiffs had not exhausted all possible administrative remedies. For example, he noted, the plaintiffs could still appeal the zoning administrator's decision to the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals — which they did.

The plaintiffs and a handful of other Park Hill residents filed appeals with the board related to both the zoning administrator's decision to allow for safe-camping sites across the city and the approval of a site-specific permit for the church parking lot.  A hearing on that challenge is slated for July 27.

During today's hearing, opponents focused on what they perceived to be negative effects of the existing safe-camping sites, especially the one set up last month outside Park Hill United Methodist Church.

Kurt Monigle, one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit who lives about two blocks from the church, presented pictures of people sleeping on the grassy median along Forest Parkway. "This is something we've never had in Park Hill. Obviously, the camp is attracting a new type of activity that we don't like, and it's scary for us," Monigle said.

Leah Capritta, an attorney who lives in Park Hill, was one of those who filed the appeal; she said that Axelrad had engaged in an "abuse of power" in allowing for the safe-camping sites. "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 added.

Speakers also offered technical arguments, questioning whether the zoning administrator had created a temporary "unlisted use" for the safe-camping sites as a way to work around existing listed uses in the Denver Zoning Code.

"This was not a truly unlisted use that required a determination from the administrator," said Sarah Baker, an attorney representing a group of people appealing the decision. The safe-camping sites were already included in a zoning category that includes homeless shelters, so safe-camping sites should only be allowed in zoning districts in which similar facilities are allowed, Baker argued.

And Baker had an alternate argument: that the zoning administrator did not consider the full criteria related to designating a temporary unlisted use that's mentioned in the Denver Zoning Code before authorizing safe-camping sites in Denver.

Axelrad disagreed, telling the board that she had the authority to allow for safe-camping sites in the temporary unlisted-uses category and that she had followed the letter of the law. She also said that each safe-camping site "has been very successful to date." The city's first two safe-camping sites wrapped up their six-month leases in May; in addition to the Park Hill location, there's a fourth site in a parking lot on the Regis University campus.

Boardmembers Charlie Young, Nancy Burkhart and Frank Schultz all voted to reject the appeal.

"This is something that should be legislated," Young said. "This is not something that should necessarily be up to us. But do I think Ms. Axelrad erred in her opinion? No. Do I think there's legitimate, serious concerns with these being allowed in all zone districts? Yeah. But that's not necessarily up to me to decide."

Boardmembers Jim Keavney and Penny Elder supported the appeal.

"This is, to me, just a tremendously difficult issue to even begin to discuss because I'm hearing loud and clear from lots of folks in the neighborhood and neighborhood associations that this has been a positive thing in their community and that providing safe opportunities for temporary housing is a much better solution than random, right-of-way camping and those kinds of things," Elder said. "And so my heart is drawn in one direction, but in my analysis, I have some concerns in the other direction."

For the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals to have overturned Axelrad's policy, a supermajority of four members would have been required. But while three members voted against the appeal, they all expressed concerns regarding how the City of Denver has handled the safe-camping sites. In particular, they said that Denver City Council should be more involved in creating a legislative framework for safe-camping sites, with Young offering his belief that there should be "a lot more rulemaking around this."

But first, the Board will have the chance to hear many of the same arguments during the July 27 hearing, which will officially focus on the Park Hill site.

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