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La Plata County sets terms for homeless camp’s future

Frustrations abound as officials debate Purple Cliffs site
La Plata County and city of Durango officials discussed a management agreement for the homeless camp at Purple Cliffs on Thursday during a joint meeting.

La Plata County wants to give the city of Durango a firm deadline, in writing: May 1 it plans to withdraw its financial support and resources from the homeless camp at Purple Cliffs.

The county proposed a rough draft of the plan to Durango City Council during a joint meeting Thursday. Some councilors balked at the agreement’s terms and timing while others focused on next steps. Frustrated county commissioners again floated the idea of closing the site, which houses about 60 people, in May in an attempt to force the city’s hand.

“It’s really important that there be some kind of understanding ... that something will happen,” said County Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “I think one of the things that will happen is the county will close the camping area May 1. That’s the consequence if we don’t get things worked out.”

In 2019, La Plata County set up a temporary homeless camp at Purple Cliffs on La Posta Road (County Road 213) with the expectation that the city of Durango would find a long-term site. The city, however, has yet to find that location.

In recent weeks, the Board of County Commissioners has been ready to withdraw its support, calling on Durango to fulfill its promise to find a new site. This week, the commissioners came close to shutting it down completely before voting to allow it to stay through the winter.

City staff members have reviewed site alternatives, most recently a location near Bodo Industrial Park. That option prompted the same issues the city always faces when it proposes a site: concerns from nearby business owners and community members, as well as engineering challenges or access concerns for campers.

“From a staff perspective, you have lots of choices. None of them are easy. All of them will have opposition,” said Kevin Hall, assistant city manager. “Right now, we do not have another location ... (for campers).”

The county’s draft agreement lists four ways the county would support the Purple Cliffs site, three of which would end May 1, and nine tasks for the city.

Under the terms, the county would allow the site to be used through the winter, coordinate with community organizations, provide law enforcement assistance and notify campers of the May 1 deadline to leave the camp.

The city would hire a camp host and provide primary law enforcement and fire mitigation. It would also provide cleanup and transportation planning services. It would register campers, create an emergency evacuation plan, develop a winter sheltering plan and create a solar charging station.

Durango city councilors said they received the agreement minutes before the meeting and did not have time to review the draft.

“I briefly had a chance to look at this. It’s definitely a one-sided agreement,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kim Baxter. “If the responsibility is going to rest on the city’s shoulders, the city should have ownership of the property. Maybe that’s the direction we should go in.”

Mayor Dean Brookie and Councilor Melissa Youssef also expressed frustration with the short period of time they were given to review the agreement and the fact that it had not been shared with the public. Westendorff said the commissioners received it Thursday morning themselves.

“This is our attempt to cooperate. The fact that you guys seem to think that this is tilted against you financially, after we have provided these basic services for the last four years ... it’s very frustrating,” Westendorff said.

Councilor Chris Bettin supported having an agreement and wanted more time to review it. Councilor Barbara Noseworthy and Commissioner Clyde Church focused on short-term issues that need to be addressed.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said the county has already looked at those issues. The camp will be there for the winter, and the process should not be delayed any further, he said.

“We need to have the elected officials at the city recognize that we’ve been handling this for five years,” Smith said. “We need to be true partners. We need to tell your staff to make it happen, just like county staff has made it happen at every juncture.”

The county pushed for councilors to make progress on fulfilling their commitments.

“I’m frankly really disappointed in all of you for taking this really hard line of ‘Oh gosh, you want us to make a decision?’” said Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, at one point snapping at Brookie not to interrupt her. “We’re asking for a partner here. I’m looking at your faces. I’m not seeing anyone taking this seriously.”

At the end of an hourlong discussion, the council agreed to add the agreement to its Oct. 6 meeting agenda for further discussion. City staff members plan to negotiate its terms and bring it back for consideration at the Oct. 13 City Council meeting.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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