Recent City Council discussions have alternated between setting broad goals and addressing narrower issues, including climate change and sustainability, and housing and homelessness.
At a recent study session, councilors considered minor revisions to existing goals to align with the priorities articulated by the new council at our May retreat. We expect to approve the updated goals document, which includes 12 associated objectives and scores of individual actions, at our Aug. 1 meeting.
One priority is to establish a higher community focus on climate and sustainability. In May, I attended an organizational meeting of a new climate-related group, the Compact of Colorado Communities. As mayor, I signed a pledge to bring the compact to the council for consideration. The associated resolution for Durango to join the compact will likely see a formal vote within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, all of Durango’s councilors endorsed a letter sent this week to Gov. John Hickenlooper by Colorado Communities for Climate Action applauding his recent Executive Order to align Colorado with the 2015 Paris climate agreement and pledging to pursue local initiatives to support these efforts.
In late June, the city received a 3-STAR community sustainability rating, just the third municipality in Colorado, and 61st in the nation, to receive this acknowledgment. The points-based rating system has 4- and 5-STAR levels, and the city will be working with community partners to further improve our sustainability performance. The STAR community framework also will guide an update of the city’s 2015 Sustainability Action Plan for internal operations (http://bit.ly/2vfim8p).
Another council priority is housing. Consequently, housing and homelessness have been the subjects of several recent discussions. At one study session, the Community Development Department presented possible policy actions, developed in two years of discussion with the Housing Policy Advisory Committee, to facilitate creation of additional housing of all sorts, but especially affordable housing. The council accepted all the suggestions as worthy of further elaboration. Within a few months, some will come back as detailed policy initiatives, such as criteria for reducing parking requirements in selected areas, e.g., North Main Avenue, to incentivize construction of affordable housing.
At another study session, and in a joint work session with the La Plata County Board of Commissioners, the council discussed the vexing issues of homelessness and panhandling.
Anecdotal reports suggest reduced downtown panhandling is owed to the presence of the Community Engagement Team developed by new Police Chief Kamran Afzal, and an intensified Ambassador program sponsored by the Business Improvement District. Ambassadors particularly urge tourists and residents alike to donate to local agencies that directly serve the homeless, rather than to panhandlers who may not be indigent.
A controversial idea discussed in both meetings is establishing a legal homeless camp. Owing to court document that challenges “no camping” ordinances, Sheriff Smith and his staff have informally sanctioned a camp on county land above the soup kitchen. While this has improved cleanliness and overall behavior in the area, the regular passage of homeless people – the majority of whom do report having work in Durango – has been a burden on neighbors, in nearby homes and on the social service campus.
Furthermore, the recent Lightner Creek fire highlighted the grave fire risk posed by such an informal camp. A successful permanent camp in Las Cruces, NM, designed to help homeless people transition back to regular residences, has been proposed as a model. One possible site is on city-owned property adjacent to the social services campus, although city staff also is evaluating other locations, in addition to continuing stakeholder conversations. Any formal proposal for establishment of a homeless camp in the city would require a public hearing before the Planning Commission.
The homeless population in Durango comprises at least three groups: Some are neighbors down on their luck; others suffer from mental illness or substance abuse; still others are transients, some seeking to exploit the generosity of our community. No action to address their various needs will come without controversy, but deeper understanding will help the community as it seeks the best local outcome for addressing this national challenge.
Important community events concerning homelessness will occur during the week of Aug. 7, with a visit by artist Willie Baronet. They will include his exhibit at the Durango Transit Center of signs purchased from homeless people, a reception with the artist on Aug. 9, and two showings at the Animas City Theatre on Aug. 10, of his documentary “Signs of Humanity.”
Oh, I have not even mentioned marijuana!
Dick White is the mayor of Durango, a position rotating among members of Durango City Council. He was re-elected in 2015 and will serve as mayor until April 2018, when he will be succeeded by now-Mayor Pro Tem Sweetie Marbury. Reach him at DickWhite@DurangoGov.org.