City says homeless camp with 80 tents isn’t a campground; if it said otherwise, it would be violating its own zoning code

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness is pictured on Oct. 29, 2022. The temporary campsite is just north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.

As a city-operated campground for the homeless has grown on the edge of downtown, business owners in recent weeks have begun protesting that the central business district is no place for such a campground.

Come to find out, they may have a powerful document on their side: the city’s own zoning code.

When questioned by the Journal-World this week, the city’s director of planning acknowledged that a campground is not a permitted use in what’s known as the “CD downtown commercial district.” The zoning code — which has the force of law — allows for campgrounds in several types of commercial business districts, but the busy central business district is not one of them.

Now, the question becomes whether the city is violating its own law by erecting a campground housing more than 80 people on city-owned property near the Kansas River levee next to Johnny’s Tavern.

The city says no, and the reason might surprise you: A site that is actively being advertised for camping — and currently has about 80 tents on it — isn’t actually a campground.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness is pictured on Oct. 29, 2022. The temporary campsite is just north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.

A response from the city attorney’s office contends the site doesn’t meet the definition of a campground in city code. When the Journal-World asked for the definition of a campground, the city simply pointed to a code section, but offered no explanation about what elements of the site didn’t fit the definition. The definition is: “Transient habitation areas for travelers in recreational vehicles or tents. Typical uses include recreation vehicle parks.”

Perhaps the city believes the site isn’t a campground because it is not recreational in nature. However, another part of the city’s response indicates that likely is not the case. When asked by the Journal-World whether a longer-term campsite the city hopes to establish by March — which won’t be recreational in nature — will be considered a campground under the city’s zoning code, the city said it would be considered a campground for zoning purposes.

Another part of the city code defining the broader category of “transient habitation,” of which campgrounds are a subcategory, says such facilities also offer “incidental food, drink and other sales and services intended for the convenience of guests.” The city-operated campsite does not have a traditional kitchen, but food delivery is occurring at the site from several outside parties. The city supplies portable toilets for the site, but does not supply other such services or conveniences.

That raises a question of whether the site would be considered a campground under city zoning code if the city used its portable trailers that provide flush toilets, showers, laundry and other services. The city has said it is not using those trailers, in part, because the site lacks easy access to electricity.

City officials long have said the campground near Johnny’s is meant to be temporary, with a projected end date in March. The city has said it hopes to have a longer-term campground established by then. City officials currently are trying to determine where that longer-term campground should be located. That process is creating a new question: Will the city follow its zoning code when deciding on a location for a longer-term campground?

The Journal-World asked Planning and Development Services Director Jeff Crick whether the city was going to limit its search for a new campground location to sites that meet the zoning requirements for campgrounds. Crick couldn’t commit to such limits, he said.

“I think to be fair, we are going to have to look beyond it,” Crick said of the four zoning districts where campgrounds are a permitted use in the city’s zoning code.

That means the city could look to put the longer-term campsite in the central business district of downtown. Rick Renfro, an owner of Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence, is among a group of business owners who are urging the city to ensure the next campground isn’t in the central business district.

“Why would you put this next to a bar? ” Renfro asks, which is the current situation with the campground.

Renfro has reported multiple altercations between people at Johnny’s and people who live in the camp next door. On Thursday he announced he is reopening Johnny’s after closing the business for three days in protest of how the city is operating the adjacent camp. Despite reopening, Renfro said he’s worried about the potential for conflicts between customers and campers.

“The problem will be when I have customers who are mad coming out, and one of those campers is walking down the road,” Renfro said.

Renfro said the information about campgrounds being prohibited in the central business district was new information to him. Another member of the downtown business group also said he was never made aware that the city’s zoning code didn’t allow for campgrounds in the district.

It is unclear that city commissioners ever were alerted to the fact that a campground is not a permitted use in the business district. The Aug. 25 memo briefing commissioners of plans to create the campground makes no mention of the city’s zoning code prohibiting such uses in the district.

Instead, the staff memo contends that the campground is legal due to a 2020 change the City Commission made to its camping ordinance. That change added an exception to the ordinance saying that individuals would not be ticketed for illegal camping in the central business district, if there are no available beds in a homeless shelter in the community.

But that change to the camping ordinance did nothing to change the city’s zoning code. In essence, the change in the camping ordinance was a step to ensure the city didn’t criminalize poverty by ticketing people for camping in the downtown area when they had no other place to go. However, that seemingly is different from giving an entity — like the City of Lawrence — permission to erect a campground in the central business district.

The situation has left Renfro concerned the city hasn’t been as open about the process for creating the campground as it should have been.

“I don’t think they have been transparent on how this process has worked,” Renfro said.

The process definitely has been different from the last time the city operated a camp for people experiencing homelessness. In 2020, the city operated a camp for homeless people in Woody Park near Lawrence Memorial Hospital. As part of setting up that camp, the city applied for and the City Commission voted on a special event permit for the campground to operate at the location. As part of that presentation to city commissioners, staff members said one of the reasons they selected the site at Woody Park is it is “within land use zoning codes where camping is permitted.”

It is unclear why the city did not use the zoning code as part of its criteria for the current site. The primary difference between the camp at Woody Park and the camp behind Johnny’s is that the city used its portable trailers to provide toilets, showers and laundry services, plus there was a designated spot for campers to meet with service providers. The Woody Park camp was significantly smaller than the current camp, housing about 20 individuals.

City officials this week did clarify why they are not using the Woody Park site for the current camp. Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said the Woody Park site met the necessary physical and infrastructure requirements for a camp, but the city decided not to use the site because officials felt they had made a political promise to the neighborhood to use the site only once for a campground.

As for zoning categories that allow for campgrounds, there are four, but one of them seems more likely than the others: park land open space. The code allows for campgrounds in the community commercial, regional commercial and strip commercial zoning districts in the city. However, the city does not own much, if any, land located in those zoning districts. The fourth category is the open space zoning district. The city owns lots of land in that district, as most parks are zoned open space, and many vacant pieces of property the city owns also fall into that category.

City officials have not publicly identified any locations they are looking at for a longer-term campground location. At the request of the Journal-World, the city created an electronic map that shows all parcels of property currently owned by the city of Lawrence. You can access that map here.


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