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Boulder clears way for immediate removal of tents from public spaces

New ordinance is part of city’s monthslong push to enforce Boulder’s urban camping ban
A tent is seen near the Glen Huntington Bandshell in downtown Boulder on April 28, 2021. (Derek Miles for Colorado Newsline)

Boulder City Council members on Tuesday night approved an emergency rule that allows law enforcement to remove tents from public spaces without prior notice – part of the city’s monthslong push to more aggressively enforce the city’s camping ban. The new ordinance is effective immediately.

“Often in the process of removing an encampment, campers will move 50 or 100 feet away and set up the tent in the daytime,” Carey Weinheimer, deputy police chief for the Boulder Police Department, said before the ordinance was approved. “Right now, that’s perfectly legal. So it really inhibits our progress in removing encampments when they can go a few feet away and erect a tent during the daytime.”

Before the new ordinance was enacted, law enforcement was required to give people living outdoors in tents 72 hours notice before removing them from public spaces. Now, law enforcement can issue tickets or citations as soon as a tent or structure is erected.

Council members also approved an ordinance making it illegal for propane tanks to be in public spaces without a permit. The tanks are often used by unhoused people for warmth during Colorado’s winter months and to cook food.

In May, Boulder council members unanimously approved the creation of a four-person encampment cleanup team within the city’s Utilities Department. The city also green-lighted a pilot ambassador program to provide more “eyes on the ground” for law enforcement; funding for two unarmed park rangers to help police public spaces and issue citations; and added six specially trained police officers to be present during encampment clearings. The initiatives will cost the city nearly $2.7 million over the course of 18 months.

Boulder resident Lynn Segal spoke in opposition to the new ordinances during Monday’s meeting, pointing to rising rents and lack of affordable housing as the main driver of Boulder’s growing homeless population.

“Boulder’s development is causing Boulder’s homelessness,” Segal said to council members. “How many times do I have to say it? I guess I just say it over and over and over and over and over and over and eventually you’ll get it and you’ll do something about it.”

The penalty for erecting a tent or possessing a propane tank is a maximum fine of $1,000 and 90 days in jail, according to city staff members. Boulder’s urban camping ban has been in place since 2016. The ban makes it illegal for people without stable housing to sleep in public spaces.

“The intent is to try to regulate and manage some of this stuff and if people don’t comply, then the option would be to confiscate the tent,” Sandra Llanes, Boulder’s interim city attorney said during the council meeting Tuesday. “But arrest is always an option or a possibility, if things escalate and get out of hand.”

In response to a council member’s question, Llanes said she is not worried about potential lawsuits related to the new ordinance that allows law enforcement to remove tents without prior notice.

A federal judge issued a ruling in January that requires Denver city officials to give written seven days notice before clearing most homeless encampments, or two days notice if the area is deemed dangerous to public health and safety.

Shari Hack, a Boulder resident of 20 years, spoke in support of the ordinance during the meeting because it will “allow the police to adequately do their job.”

“Let’s not be naive. Propane tanks and tents have no place in public and open spaces and they are frequently used by illegal campers,” she said. “Illegal campers have been running amok in Boulder for way too long.”

Council member Adam Swetlik, who voted against the new ordinances, said he shared concerns about people camping in public spaces and the social and environmental impacts of such activity. But he doesn’t think further enforcement will help alleviate the problem.

“We can pass all the laws we want that have no effect but to give someone a summons or at most put them in jail a few days, and they’ll return to life with even less than what they had before they went to jail, plus an arrest record that is not going to help them get back into society,” he said.

To read more stories by Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.