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Commissioners to vote on exiting managed camp contract

Amid concerns, La Plata County advised not to buy property along Highway 160
La Plata County proposed constructing a managed homeless camp between U.S. Highway 160 and Lightner Creek on these four properties. County staff members have recommended that commissioners terminate the contract to purchase the properties. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Plans for a managed camp for Durango’s unhoused community have again hit a snag.

La Plata County commissioners will vote Tuesday whether to terminate the county’s $1.7 million contract to buy four properties for a camp along U.S. Highway 160 near the Durango Dog Park after due diligence revealed concerns about the site.

Staff members cited limitations created by the flood plain of the property in the 21000 block of U.S. Highway 160 and an environmental covenant that would require approvals from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to develop the site, according to county documents.

“We’ve always said we were in our due diligence period, and we have to be thorough and good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said County Manager Chuck Stevens. “It’s important to remember that, while this is an incredibly valuable piece of land for future development of some sort, we were looking for a piece of land with a very specific purpose.

La Plata County is under contract to purchase four properties along U.S. Highway 160 as seen on Friday for construction of a managed camp, but staff members have recommended the county terminate the contract. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“The bottom line is there were just some issues – environmental easement and floodway, primarily – that it’s not going to allow us to do what we were looking for to the size, scope and extent that we needed for that managed camp to be successful,” he said

The county has conducted reviews of the site since commissioners voted to approve the contract on April 12. Staff members considered disclosures from the sellers, took on-site tours, reviewed public records, surveyed the property and performed a Phase 1 environmental assessment.

Issues revealed during the review compounded existing concerns about the size of the site, which, at just over an acre, was around the minimum area the county and its partners needed to establish a managed camp. The issues added up, Stevens said.

“We were going to be hard-pressed to fit everything on the land to begin with, and then there’s a little bit of concern over the floodway and the usable space,” he said.

The recommendation to terminate the contract was not based on finances or additional costs of developing the property, he said.

“It didn’t come down to dollars and cents. If there was a way to make this property work, I think we could have dealt (with) any of the other financial constraints that might have arisen,” Stevens said.

Though commissioners have yet to make a decision, Matt Salka, chairman of the board, said the recommendation was disheartening after all the work the county has put into creating a managed camp.

“We’ve exhausted all of our options in the county areas and properties that have been offered to us to look into, so it’s a huge disappointment,” he said.

It was a sentiment Stevens shared.

“We are so devastated and disappointed that we’re not able to move forward with this piece of property because our community needs a solution, and we were so hopeful that we were on the cusp of one,” Stevens said.

La Plata County and its partners have worked for more than two years to establish a managed camp. The county and city of Durango’s joint Strategic Plan on Homelessness released in January 2020 identified a managed camp as one way to address homelessness.

Most recently, the county identified a site for the camp on county-owned property near the Durango Tech Center but received pushback from residents of the Ella Vita and Crestview neighborhoods who had experienced dispersed camping at the tech center between 2015 and 2018. They argued the camp should be established elsewhere.

For years, the city and the county unsuccessfully searched for an alternative to dispersed camping and Purple Cliffs, which was sanctioned by the county in 2019.

The area in red represents the four parcels that make up 1.1 acres where La Plata County and the city of Durango have considered placing for a managed camp. The location is adjacent to the Durango Dog Park next to U.S. Highway 160. (Screenshot)

An analysis by La Plata County of more than 30 properties going back to 2015 turned up one county-owned property for a potential managed camp – the location near the Durango Tech Center.

After objections to that site, commissioners directed county staff members to consider purchasing properties for a managed camp. County staff and commissioners initially identified the four properties near the Durango Dog Park as a promising option.

For its part, the city has waffled on moving campers and establishing a new homeless camp.

In 2021, the city considered purchasing Colorado Parks and Wildlife property that Mayor Dean Brookie called a “bright star.” An analysis by the city, county and Neighbors in Need Alliance, an unhoused advocacy group, found the CPW site was the best location for a managed camp and the second best for a primitive camp – after Purple Cliffs – but any plan to purchase the property died without a whimper.

NINA proposed locating a managed camp near Greenmount Cemetery in 2020 at a site it called Elkview. The group favored the spot because of its balance between access to social services and limited neighborhood impacts, but City Council stalled development of the site, which has since died, asking staff members to review other locations.

Caroline Kinser, NINA’s board chairwoman, said she trusted the county’s due diligence process. The group was preparing a proposal due to the county June 30 to operate the managed camp.

“We’ve got a lot to figure out. There’s a lot more we can still do,” Kinser said.

She added that NINA remains prepared to implement a managed camp if a suitable location arises.

“We have always said if we were given a piece of land, we’d figure it out,” she said.

At a meeting between the county and city last month, Councilor Kim Baxter proposed a joint task force to address the impacts of closing Purple Cliffs after the establishment of a managed camp.

Now, Kinser said, the two governments should consider creating a joint task force to tackle homelessness and create a managed camp.

Salka and Stevens said the recommendation to terminate the contract has not changed the county’s intention to close Purple Cliffs before winter.

“I hope that other groups, organizations (and) the city can help assist on finding a proposed location for a managed camp because the unmanaged Purple Cliffs camp is just not working,” Salka said.

Commissioners will vote whether to terminate the contract during Tuesday’s business meeting at 10 a.m. at the La Plata County Administration Building on East Second Avenue.

Stevens said the county will continue to work with the city and its other partners to find a location and construct a managed camp.

“The county remains committed to being a partner in finding solutions (and) a partner in implementing the Strategic Plan on Homelessness,” he said. “We will redouble our efforts to find sites and vet them just as we’ve been doing over the last few years.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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