The El Paso County Sheriff's Office has called off the planned cleanup of a homeless encampment at Rocky Top Resources - arguing they have no legal authority to force people off the property.
Sheriff Bill Elder said the business owner told a nonprofit the campers were allowed to live there. Despite Rocky Top's owner having changed his mind, as their landlord he needs to follow the civil eviction process for removing tenants, Elder said.
The development highlighted the legal implications that private property owners can encounter by allowing homeless campers to live on their property. And it came amid a growing debate over how best to address the region's persistent and growing issue of homelessness - whether it's sanctioned camping, nonprofit-led initiatives or stiffened law enforcement campaigns.
About 100 people in at least 75 tents are living in a quarter-mile-long encampment along the banks of Fountain Creek off East Las Vegas Street south of the Martin Luther King Bypass. Many of the homeless campers kept their areas free of trash, filling plastic garbage bags provided by a nonprofit. Others were strewn with refuse and discarded clothing, plastic jugs and other belongings.
On Wednesday, sheriff's deputies posted eviction notices throughout the camp warning that anyone remaining on Friday morning would be cited for trespassing. The action was called of abruptly Thursday afternoon.
Elder said the camp marked "a really strange crossroads in our community," where people such as the owner of Rocky Top, a wood recycling and landscape supply center, wanted to help address homelessness on their own.
"I think he felt that was a good opportunity to offer homeless people a place to camp and to give a model for our community," said Elder.
He called such an encampment unprecedented for the county. And he issued a warning to anyone else who may have the same idea.
"What it does for us is it hamstrings us legally in what we can do to help," Elder said. "Clearly, the owner of Rocky Top wanted nothing more than to provide a safe location for them to camp. He clearly did that with good intentions.
"The unfortunate thing is that once you give people an inch, sometimes they'll take a mile."
Whether the campers had permission to stay at Rocky Top came under dispute Thursday.
Sheriff's Lt. Bill Huffor said Rocky Top's owner, Fred Martin, had allowed the campers on his property until a recent change of heart. That led sheriff's deputies to post notices warning of an impending camp cleanup, with stragglers being cited for trespassing.
But after researching the matter further and consulting with the county's attorneys, Huffor called off the cleanup.
Rocky Top's owner, Fred Martin, denied he gave permission for the campers to live on his property.
"The gray area is when they moved onto my property, and I didn't ask them to leave that next day," Martin said. "That's considered consent, even though I never verbally talked to any of those people."
Four years ago, he allowed homeless campers at Rocky Top, but he kicked them out after being told by El Paso County officials that the camps violated zoning codes.
Martin said he never allowed campers back, despite a desire to help create such an encampment.
"That's our goal, to create an area like that," Martin said. "Whether it's my property or somewhere else, we need to help them (homeless campers) out.
"I can't do it on my property right now," he added, "because it's not zoned for that yet."
Trig Bundgaard, of the nonprofit Blackbird Outreach, said Rocky Top's operations manager told him homeless campers could live on the property on a week-to-week basis.
It wasn't until last week that Martin asked Blackbird for help removing the camps, Bundgaard said.
"It's incredibly awesome, because one of the largest camps in Colorado Springs didn't get evicted" by sheriff's deputies, Bundgaard said. "And terribly awful because one of the most compassionate landowners now has a terrible legal problem on his hands."
Regardless, Martin said the campers had to go, due to zoning concerns. Martin said he would only try to legally evict them "if that's necessary" - preferring to let them leave with the help of Blackbird Outreach, without taking them to court.
Typical eviction cases cost landlords $500 to $600 per dwelling, said John Finger, a Colorado Springs-based attorney with experience in tenant and landlord disputes. Those costs can skyrocket, however, should a case proceed to trial.
Such eviction proceedings typically run about five weeks.
Only after eviction notices are approved by a county court judge can a property owner request that sheriff's deputies remove the tenant from the property, Finger said.
During a visit to the encampment Thursday, Bundgaard said about one-third of the camp's residents had left. Many others planned to honor Martin's request to leave.
But several said they planned to stay.
"'What do you expect us to do?'" Bundgaard recalled the campers saying. "'If we leave, we get arrested or ticketed for camping.'"