Park Hill Residents Sue Denver Over Safe-Camping Sites

The safe-camping site in South Park Hill, just off Montview Boulevard.
The safe-camping site in South Park Hill, just off Montview Boulevard. Evan Semón
After months of arguments and appeals, a group of Park Hill residents has filed suit in Denver District Court challenging how the City of Denver allowed the establishment of safe-camping sites for people experiencing homelessness.

"If you are going to make huge changes to the city zoning code that affect potentially every single homeowner and resident in Denver, those things need to be going through the political process. The mayor and the Denver City Council need to be involved," says attorney Dan Burrows of the Public Trust Institute, a nonprofit organization "created to uphold our state’s constitution and defend the principles of individual freedom and personal responsibility on which Colorado was founded."

Burrows filed the lawsuit with another lawyer, Sarah Baker, in Denver District Court on August 17, on behalf of a group of Park Hill residents. The lawsuit challenges the Denver zoning administrator's decision to create a "temporary unlisted use" allowance for safe-camping sites across the city, including residential neighborhoods such as South Park Hill.

Denver has two safe-camping sites right now: one in a parking lot on the campus of Regis University and another in the parking lot of Park Hill United Methodist Church, on Montview Boulevard between Forest and Glencoe streets.

While setting up the Regis location was relatively quiet, the decision to locate a safe-camping site in South Park Hill has caused conflict between neighbors, city officials, nonprofit service providers and the church.

In May, five Park Hill residents sued the nonprofit that has been running safe-camping sites, Colorado Village Collaborative, as well as Park Hill United Methodist Church, its lead pastor and the City of Denver, to stop the establishment of the safe-camping site at the church.

Denver District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones dismissed the case later that month, ruling that before a suit could proceed, the plaintiffs had to first exhaust all possible administrative remedies regarding their issues with the safe-camping site plan — specifically, with the zoning board that had approved it. So the residents filed two appeals with the Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning, challenging the creation of the temporary unlisted use for safe-camping sites and the permitting of the site in Park Hill.

Before the hearings on those appeals, though, the safe-camping site opened in South Park Hill. The CVC and other service providers frame the safe-camping site concept as a harm reduction model, which keeps people out of the way of encampment sweeps while giving them a stable place to live with centralized access to services, showers and toilets.
click to enlarge
The safe-camping sites provide individual ice-fishing tents.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
While collectively expressing a belief that Denver City Council should create legislation to make space available for safe-camping sites and not just leave it up to the zoning administrator, the members of the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals voted to reject both appeals. While a majority of the board favored the Park Hill site-specific appeal, a supermajority was required to overturn the zoning administrator's decision.

That appeal ruling came down earlier this month. The lawsuit against the city followed.

"The allegation with the Park Hill site is [that the zoning administrator] didn’t take into account health and safety properly. There was no community meeting, there was no discussion. This site exists next to a preschool and just a couple blocks away from an elementary school," says Burrows.

Kevin Reidy, Leah Capritta and David and Ella Rodman, all Park Hill residents, are plaintiffs in the case; David Rodman was a plaintiff in the original May lawsuit. Also listed as a plaintiff is Denver Deserves Better, an organization whose purposes include "representing the broad rights of the citizens of the City of Denver as it relates to the City’s management of the homeless population and those suffering from drug addiction and severe mental health issues that are contributing to the degradation of the City’s living environment and safety." Reidy is the president of the newly created group.

Unlike the previous lawsuit, the new complaint doesn't list the Colorado Village Collaborative as a defendant.

"I get it from the operator's perspective. This isn’t really their fault. They put it where they could get it," says Burrows.

Although his organization isn't a defendant this time, Cole Chandler, the director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, defends the safe-camping concept. "Denver deserves racially and economically diverse neighborhoods," he says. "People deserve homes. A privileged few shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way of delivering on those core tenets of a just and equitable city."

The Denver City Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case. Read the complaint here:

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.