“What I’m concerned about is that it seems like there might be a small minority of oppositional people that have just decided on this as their strategy. It seems like if that is the case, whether or not the community supports it, there might be people that put us through this process,” says Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which pushed the Safe Outdoor Spaces concept and is currently running safe-camping sites at Regis University and in parking lots at 780 Elati Street and 3815 Steele Street.
On November 17, 46 neighbors of the 780 Elati Street site, which hosts around 35 people, filed an appeal with the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals challenging the city’s issuance of a temporary-use zoning permit to operate the safe-camping site in a parking lot owned by Denver Health. On December 14, three property owners who own land near the Steele Street site, which is set up on a city-owned parking lot and had just opened that day, filed an appeal of that permit; the site currently has about 33 residents.
A hearing for the Elati Street appeal is scheduled for January 18, while the one for Steele Street is slated for February 15.
“We do not intend to discuss the appeal in light of the upcoming hearing,” says Jason Richardson, one of the residents who filed the Elati Street appeal. “That said, for the basis of the appeal, I would direct you to the appeal itself.”
In the appeal, neighbors cite concerns regarding secondhand smoke, noise, odors and light, as well as a possible decrease in adjacent property value. They are also worried about safety; the appeal notes that people with convictions for violent crimes or sexual offenses could be eligible to live at the site.
“To date, there have been no issues concerning SOS residents and children in any of the neighborhoods we have called home,” responds Chandler.
Last spring, when the Colorado Village Collaborative proposed a site at a church parking lot in Park Hill, a handful of neighbors protested; Chandler’s crew took special precautions at this Safe Outdoor Spaces project. “The Park Hill was the only SOS that utilized criminal background checks and sex offender screenings as part of the screening process,” Chandler says. “That site was unique, given the fact that Park Hill [United Methodist Church] is also the home of a preschool. We took extra precautions at that site that were not deemed necessary at Elati Street or any other SOS location.”
The Park Hill site shut down last month, per its lease agreement. “Last I checked, homes in South Park Hill where we were located for the last six-plus months are still pretty valuable,” Chandler notes. “The same goes for the Capitol Hill neighborhood we called home earlier this year. The city assessor showed that home values in those neighborhoods continued to increase year over year. I think it’s safe to assume that homeowners in La Alma/Lincoln Park will still enjoy highly valuable homes, and that the city-assessed value of those homes will rise while the SOS is active in their neighborhood.”
Even so, the appeal of that site’s permit didn’t catch Chandler off-guard.
“I wasn’t surprised by the Elati appeal, because there was neighborhood opposition that emerged to that pretty early on. I’m encouraged that we have now executed a good-neighbor agreement,” says Chandler. “The Steele Street site, I was totally blindsided by that appeal. There’s been no community opposition whatsoever to that. The neighborhood early and often signed off on their support. That was our first-ever site to open with the good-neighbor agreement in place.”
The three appealing the Steele Street site — Michael Kennedy, Robert Reich and Robert Manning — filed their appeal as KRMN Steele, LLC, an entity that had previously expressed a desire to possibly rezone properties owned by the three individuals in the Clayton neighborhood.
A representative of “KRMN Steele LLC met with zoning staff in July 2020 to discuss the possibility of a rezoning of properties along Steele,” says Laura Swartz, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development. “We walked through what might be required if it was something the applicant wanted to pursue, and encouraged the applicant to meet with their council office and neighbors/neighborhood organizations before submitting a formal application. To date, the city has not received a formal rezoning application from this applicant.”
The Steele Street appeal highlights the fact that the safe-camping site has a low barrier for entry, and doesn’t automatically exclude those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. “The Operational Plan should incorporate ‘tent checks’ to include searches for drugs, alcohol, and weapons to ensure the residents of the encampment are living up to the policies allegedly adhered to by CVC,” the appeal argues. “Furthermore, the residents should submit to weekly drug and alcohol tests to ensure accountability and compliance with CVC’s operational guideline.”
Responds Chandler: “We don’t conduct drug and alcohol testing at any of our sites, nor do we require sobriety. If an individual is struggling with addiction, we first offer that person a safe place to get stable and when they are ready, we provide access to services that can assist them in a recovery journey.”
Chandler reached out to the people who filed that appeal. “I had never spoken to them before,” he says. “And they did not respond to my outreach. I’m just disappointed that we’re not able to communicate as neighbors.”
The three individuals who filed the appeal did not respond to Westword‘s request for comment.
These two appeals are not the first to get hearings over safe-camping sites. Some Park Hill neighbors filed an appeal with the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals, challenging the overall authority of Denver zoning administrator Tina Axelrad to create a temporary use for safe-camping sites, which aren’t listed as approved uses. The board rejected that appeal in July in a 3-2 vote. In August, the board voted 3-2 in favor of a site-specific appeal for the Park Hill location. However, since a supermajority of four votes is needed to sustain an appeal, the challenge was rejected.
After that, the Park Hill group went to court over its issues with safe-camping sites. That case remains pending in Denver District Court.
“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. We’ve seen the positive outcomes of this work, with the initial Safe Outdoor sites having worked very well, and we look forward to continuing to make these spaces available for the residents who need them,” Axelrad says.
After cautiously approving the safe-camping site model in 2020, the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock fully bought into the approach this year. Denver City Council had to approve the lease for the Steele Street site, since it’s on city property, and the city recently earmarked $4 million for the safe-camping site program in 2022.
“We are encouraged by the fact that these sites continue to fill up quickly and serve the people that they’re intending to serve and doing so in a really powerful and effective way,” Chandler says. “That keeps us going in spite of a few loud voices wanting to drag us through an appeal process every time.”