GOING THE DISTANCE: Aurora City Council grants first OK to ‘congregate living’ restrictions despite unanswered questions

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AURORA | Despite a knot of outstanding questions regarding specific distance setbacks, Aurora City Council members Monday night volleyed a contentious zoning code amendment to an upcoming regular meeting for a formal vote.

At a special study session June 26, council members agreed to clarify ambiguities in the city’s zoning code with a so-called congregate living amendment, which would allow for particular group homes — such as those that seek to provide services to the city’s homeless population — to operate in Aurora after receiving the blessing of the city council at a public hearing.

The proposed change has been moored to a particular homeless services program that has been vying to move to the city for the past year. The Bridge House Ready to Work program, a Boulder-based organization that helps house and employ several dozen chronically homeless individuals, has been trying to set up an Aurora branch at a former bingo hall at the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Laredo Street. But neighbors there have consistently railed against the organization’s proposed location, saying the proximity of the residential work program to local schools could put young children in danger.

More than 1,500 people have signed a petition against the organization’s possible location at 16000 E. Colfax Ave., according to City Councilwoman Renie Peterson.

“This whole ordinance is becoming a referendum or has become a referendum on Bridge House,” said Councilman Bob LeGare.

Council members hemmed and hawed over possible distance setbacks for so-called congregate living facilities at the June 26 meeting, though they eventually agreed to sort out the final distances whenever the measure is brought up on the floor at a regular council meeting.

At a recent city council policy committee meeting, Peterson suggested imposing the same distance setback regulations on congregate living pads that the city uses for retail marijuana shops. The committee decided to recommend the group living areas should not be less than 1,000 feet from a school or commercial daycare facility, or within 500 feet of a hospital.

That was the proposition in front of council members Monday, although a litany of other distances were posited. Suggestions ranged from as few as 300 feet, to maintaining the proposed 1,000-foot buffer.

Council members did, however, agree to strike the distance setback from hospitals altogether after at least once council member suggested that populations living in possible congregate living facilities would likely need fast and frequent access to healthcare.

Council member Renie Peterson formally introduced an amendment to her own proposal, suggesting the distance setback should be closer to 800 feet from schools. That change was in response to a request from Ward I Councilwoman Sally Mounier, who has repeatedly called for the Ready to Work program to slide into the chameleonic Afrikmall building on East Colfax Avenue.

“The reason that I’m proposing the 750-800-feet is so that it could go on Colfax and still be within the reasonable (distance) of Crawford (Elementary) School,” Peterson said. “So it could go in the Afrikmall … that’s why I proposed the lower amount.”

Peterson said Crawford is estimated to be about 791 feet from the Afrikmall building, according to city staffers.

The owners of the building, Northstar Commercial Partners, have expressed interest in having a homeless service provider fill the perpetually flummoxed former furniture store.

Both Peterson and Councilwoman Barb Cleland contested that because the Afrikmall building, which is currently operating as a quasi-business incubator with some religious services, is sandwiched between several other retail strips it would be a more amenable location for Ready to Work than the highly residential area near Laredo.

“It’s night and day,” Cleland said of the two locations.

Isabel McDevitt, executive director of Bridge House, has said that if the amendment were to pass with the currently proposed 1,000-foot setback from schools, her tentative location on Colfax and Laredo would no longer be a viable option as its only a few hundred feet from Laredo Elementary School and other education centers.

Council members asked staff to prepare additional maps that would show where potential congregate living facilities could go if they were barred from operating within 300 feet, 500 feet and 750 feet of schools.

Bob Roth, who serves as chairman of the city’s ad hoc policy committee that deals with marijuana and helped draft the distance regulations on retail marijuana in the city, said those regulations were arbitrarily set by the state and the federal government, and should not be taken as an end-all for distance setbacks in Aurora.

“That was dictated to us,” Roth said. “This council would have done something, I think, far different, so … I’m just saying that I don’t put a lot of stock into the 1,000 feet necessarily as a safe distance or whatever, I mean what’s a safe distance?”

The issue could be discussed at the next regular council meeting July 10.

MORE:

Read @EditorDavePerry’s June 8 column criticizing the city’s push to change zoning law in hopes of stoping a Bridge House development.