park hill campsite

Tents are set up in the parking lot of the Park Hill United Methodist Church at 5209 Montview Blvd. in Denver as the site becomes the city's fourth Safe Outdoor Space — a managed campsite for homeless residents to stay.

A Denver-based nonprofit is suing the city, alleging Denver’s zoning administrator changed zoning to allow homeless encampments without input from the public, city council or the city’s zoning board.

The suit was filed Wednesday in Denver District Court by Dan Burrows of the Public Trust Institute on behalf of four Denver residents and Denver Deserves Better, a group “established to oppose the City’s notoriously expensive and unsuccessful management of homeless issues.”

The controversy centers on Denver Zoning Administrator Tina Axelrad, who in November 2020 issued a determination ruling that temporary managed campsites for the homeless in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were allowed under the city’s zoning ordinances. Axelrad in May updated that determination, extending it through December 2023 or until city and state coronavirus public health orders are rescinded. Based on that determination, Axelrad went on to approve a permit for a campsite in the Park Hill neighborhood one day after issuing the updated determination.

The city zoning board in July denied appeals against both the determination and the permit. Three of the five board members voted in favor of the appeal against the permit but that vote failed to reach the supermajority of four members needed to approve the appeal.

According to the complaint, Axelrad violated zoning codes in issuing both the determination and the permit while the zoning board “exceeded its jurisdiction, abused its discretion, and acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner” by affirming both.

The suit asks the court to overturn both the determination and the permit.

“Setting up tent cities for the homeless would not withstand the glare of public notice and citizen accountability,” Burrows said in a statement, noting that in 2019 over 80% of Denver voters rejected an effort to allow homeless encampments in public spaces.

“Yet activists found a way to circumvent the public by having a city bureaucrat unilaterally impose a zoning change, hoping that citizens wouldn’t pay attention or demand accountability.”

Axelrad’s office was not available for comment.

The case is Denver Deserves Better v City and County of Denver ex rel Board of Zoning Adjustment.

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