BURNING BRIDGES: Aurora City Council approves amendment preventing homeless service provider from opening on East Colfax

"Unfortunately, because we have not had a process to follow and because we have not had an opportunity to properly share what our model is all about, there's a ton of misinformation out there … we have nothing but a good track record and I would like to properly be able to share that with this community," said Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House. "And we've already had two meetings and we've had a number of people leave those meetings with their minds changed.

AURORA | A homeless service provider that could have helped house and employ as many as four dozen chronically homeless individuals in Aurora will not be allowed to set up shop on far East Colfax Avenue, Aurora City Council members decided Monday night.

At the regular July 10 council meeting, officials narrowly decided to prevent so-called congregate living facilities from operating within 300 feet of a school, thus precluding a controversial homeless service provider from opening in a former bingo hall at the corner of East Colfax and Laredo Street.

By a vote of 6-4, council members approved a thoroughly-negotiated amendment that prevents some living facilities — such as those that provide accommodations to specific populations like homeless individuals or single mothers — from operating within 300 linear feet of commercial daycare centers and schools that serve students in pre-kindergarten through high school.

Council members Francoise Bergan, Charlie Richardson, Sally Mounier and Angela Lawson voted against the 300-foot setback amendment.

The amended ordinance passed by a vote of 8-2, with council members Sally Mounier and Barb Cleland dissenting. The measure will still need to receive final approval during a second reading at an upcoming council meeting.

“A lot of these folks are re-entry men; this is not a program for families — it’s a program for men and some of those are re-entry men that came out of the criminal system,” Councilwoman Renie Peterson said.” You really have to consider what happens: What do men do when they get out of jail? Where’s the first place … what do they look for? What do they do? Consider that.”

For the better part of six months, the so-called congregate living amendment to the city’s zoning code has been a point of contention among council representatives and community members, including many from the Apache Mesa neighborhood in the city’s northeastern Ward II. The issue became inextricably tied to The Bridge House Ready to Work program, a Boulder-based organization that helps house and employ several dozen chronically homeless individuals for up to one year. While candidates for the program, which has operated in Boulder for about five years, would be heavily vetted and monitored, neighbors in the area railed against its proposed location, saying it could place potentially seedy denizens next to local schoolchildren.

More than 1,500 people signed a petition against the organization’s proposed location at 16000 E. Colfax Ave. Nearly a dozen residents spoke both in favor of and against the program and its proposed location during the public comment portion of the meeting Monday night.

Council members agreed on the 300-foot setback after several months of debate, which originally began with a setback proposal that called for the same restrictions placed on retail marijuana shops: At least 1,000 feet from a school.

But after viewing several zoning maps, which generated an array of different setback options, elected officials decided on the lowest option.

Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor confirmed at the July 10 meeting that the 300-foot setback would preclude the Ready to Work program from operating in its proposed East Colfax location in the former Aces Bingo Hall. Laredo Elementary School sits within the approved 300-foot buffer.

Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House, pleaded with council members to reconsider the proposal before they voted Monday evening.

“Unfortunately, because we have not had a process to follow and because we have not had an opportunity to properly share what our model is all about, there’s a ton of misinformation out there … we have nothing but a good track record, and I would like to properly be able to share that with this community,” McDevitt said. “And we’ve already had two meetings and we’ve had a number of people leave those meetings with their minds changed.

“And I urge you to allow for congregate living to come into the code with no setbacks and require a conditional use review. Then you can take the projects on each of their merits and the community can really get the facts in order to make their decision and give you their input, because this has not happened in this case.”

In May, McDevitt said the Ready to Work program in Boulder had a contract with the Department of Corrections, which was set to expire this summer, to accept some qualified parolees into the program. However, she said there were never concrete plans to re-up that contract at the proposed Aurora site.

McDevitt said there were six parolees participating in the Ready to Work program in early May. She also confirmed the program does not accept registered sex offenders.

The new amendment will allow congregate living projects to come to the city — only in areas congruent with the new distance setbacks — after receiving the blessing of council at a conditional hearing. Batchelor said the city has received several inquiries from possible congregate living programs, including the Denver-based Family Tree program, in the past 18 months.

Sally Mounier, city council representative for Aurora’s northwestern Ward I, again lobbied for the Ready to Work program to slide into the former Afrikmall location on East Colfax Avenue. The owners of that property, which has undergone several iterations in recent years, have said they’re open to that prospect. The imposed buffers would not prevent that space from acting as a congregate living facility.