From Darkness To Light

3 Sep 2018

Bait and switch? City of Durango Mayor cancels camp promise with County last minute

Posted by Adam Howell

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A commitment that the City of Durango’s mayor made to La Plata County Commissioners to open a sheltering area by the Durango Dog Park in exchange for the County closing its camp on county land was cancelled this summer.

During the 416 Fire, the City opened a temporary evacuation shelter for homeless people below the Greenmount Cemetery where camping was allowed for 60 days. It was closed on August 25, 2018. Comments from homeless people indicated that it was the disrespect that they received from City officials there, not its location, that made the site undesirable for camping.

During the 416 Fire, the City opened a temporary evacuation shelter for homeless people below the Greenmount Cemetery where camping was allowed for 60 days. It was closed on August 25, 2018. Comments from homeless people indicated that it was the disrespect that they received from City officials there, not its location, that made the site undesirable for camping.

The mayor changed her mind after the County Commissioners followed through with the agreement by closing the County encampment.

For many, the question is whether or not this pressure from Madam Mayor Sweetie Marbury was a tactic that was used in order to convince the county to change its policy without the City having to change its own.

Originally, La Plata County had a piece of land above the Tech Center and Manna Soup Kitchen that the Sheriff’s Office was allowing homeless people to camp on.

After a drought period extending through the winter, spring and early summer, the Durango City Council was getting worried about the fire danger that the campers posed in the urban interface.

Worried, the City Council sent a letter to the County Commissioners on March 27, 2018 asking them to close its homeless camping area due to the fire danger, threats to public safety, as well as the impacts it was having on neighborhoods.

In response, the County Commissioners told the city that they would commence the closure of its encampment within 60 days of the city providing plans for its alternative shelter.

Providing adequate alternative shelter was important to the Commissioners, their letter said, in order to protect the constitutional rights of the citizens of La Plata County.

“As to the city’s shelter, once the county is provided written confirmation that an alternative shelter location is open and ready to receive campers, the county will initiate closure actions for the bench location, consistent with adopted policies and constitutional constraints,” the Commissioners said.

Lightner Creek Sheltering Area proposal

This is the proposal that was cancelled.

Some of the things that the county asked the City to explain about its proposed alternative shelter in their response letter included the following:

  • Location of the alternative shelter
  • Hours of the alternative shelter
  • Constraints, if any, on the ability for the shelter to serve those who may be physically or mentally impaired or campers with special needs
  • Directions to the alternative shelter
  • Basic rules governing the alternative shelter
  • Services available at the alternative shelter

Close your camp, and we’ll open ours

The following month (May 2nd, 2018), after Sweetie Marbury was appointed as the city’s mayor, Marbury responded to the County’s request for information about its plans for a new alternative shelter.

Marbury made it clear that the City of Durango would open up a new homeless camping area on City land in exchange for the County closing its encampment above the Tech Center.

“The opening date of the Lightner Creek Sheltering Area must coincide with the closure date of the County-sanctioned camp to ensure a smooth transition between the two locations and to limit the number of days for which two locations are open simultaneously. Given the County’s stated requirement of needing 60 days to close the existing camp, this letter shall serve as notice that the Lightner Creek Sheltering Area will be available for use within one week notice from the County, or on June 30, 2018, whichever is sooner,” said Marbury.

New code bans camping, camp fires, marijuana on County property

After Marbury confirmed the City’s commitment to open up a new camp by July, the County moved forward with its commitment to close its homeless encampment in exchange for the City opening theirs by Lightner Creek and the Dog Park. At a May 22, 2018 business meeting, the County Commissioners repealed and replaced two sections of its code on public places.


The County’s former camp site by the Van Dal Landfill sits vacant after the County Commissioners passed an ordinance prohibiting camping and camp fires on its lands.

Ordinance O-2018-2 repealed and replaced Sections 38-1 and 38-2 of the County Code with a new Section 38-1 “relating to the establishment of operating hours for county properties, unauthorized activities on county properties, public assembly on county property, removal of unauthorized property and enforcement procedures.”

Basically, the updated code bans homeless people from camping, having camp fires, and possessing marijuana on county property, as written into the ordinance.

A person violating the ordinance will be charged with a Class 2 petty offense, according to Section 7 of the ordinance.

Before the County Commissioners approved of the new ordinance on public places, there was surprisingly minimal discussion at the meeting about the reasoning for adopting it, even though they had previously agreed with the City to close their camp in exchange for the City opening theirs down by Lightner Creek.

Pointed letter from CDPHE to City on Lightner Creek camp proposal

With concern, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment cautioned the City of Durango from allowing people to camp out by the Durango Dog Park where uranium mine tailings used to be stored in the past.

In a May 30, 2018 letter to the Durango City Council from Monica Sheets, the CDPHE's Remediation Program Manager, Sheets advised the City to conduct a risk assessment to determine if the residual radiation that is distinguishable from background radiation does not exceed the dose equivalent of more than 25 mrem per year.

It is unclear who tests radiation in units of mrem, or how such a test would administered, but radon gas is usually measured in pCi/liter, which would be a different standard of measurement than the what’s referred to by the CDPHE.

The CDPHE does not plan on conducting the risk assessment on the City’s behalf, said Sheets. Her letter also does not constitute approval of the City’s previous plan for the encampment by Lightner Creek, she said.

“The City undertakes this effort at its own risk and should the City’s actions result in a violation of the terms of the Environmental Covenant placed on the property, CDPHE reserves its enforcement rights,” said Sheets.

This standard of risk assessment may have pushed City officials to quantify the financial costs of testing the site before allowing homeless people to camp there.


A camp that was left trashed at the County’s homeless encampment site above Manna Soup Kitchen.

By August 25th, the City had closed its temporary homeless camp by Greenmount Cemetery and reversed course on its plans to open the new camp by the Dog Park at Lightner Creek.

It was the fear of declining sales tax revenues, as well as the alleged hardship of finding someone to test for radon, however, that resulted in the City deciding not to open the new camp, according to Marbury.

In an August 17, 2018 Durango Herald story, Marbury said that City staff looked into testing the Lightner Creek spot for radon, but didn’t receive a response from companies.

A search of BidNet’s Rocky Mountain E-Purchasing system, which the City of Durango uses to solicit bids from contractors, did not show any open or closed bids for a qualified radiation or radon testing company.

Durango’s Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz confirmed that no Request For Proposal for radon testing at the Dog Park was issued by the City for the proposed Lightner Creek Sheltering Area.

Due to multiple concerns with the site, it was ultimately abandoned by the City Council, said Metz.

This decision aside, the City Council has passed multiple laws over the years to curtail the impacts that homeless people are having on the community.

Whether or not the City’s policies are protecting the constitutional rights of homeless people is debatable, and could be challenged in court by anyone, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Read the ACLU’s threatening letter to the City of Durango by clicking here.

Adam Howell is a writer who is on the City of Durango’s Natural Lands Preservation Advisory Board. He can be reached by clicking on this link to the contact page.

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