picture by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
As a city-run campground for the homeless has sprung up on the outskirts of downtown, business owners have in recent weeks begun protesting that the central business district is not is no place for such a campground.
Come find out, they may have a powerful document on their side: the city’s own zoning code.
Asked by the Journal-World this week, the city’s director of planning admitted that a campground was not a permitted use in what is called the ‘downtown commercial district of CD’ . The zoning code — which has the force of law — allows campgrounds in several types of commercial business districts, but the bustling central business district is not one of them.
Now the question is whether the city is breaking 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’s actively advertised for camping—and currently has about 80 tents—isn’t actually a campground.
picture by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
A response from the city attorney’s office says the site does not meet the city code definition of a campground. When the Journal-World asked for the definition of a campground, the city simply pointed to a section of code, but offered no explanation of what elements of the site did not fit the definition. The definition is as follows: “Transitional living areas for travelers in motorhomes or tents. Typical uses include recreational vehicle parks.
Maybe the city thinks the site isn’t a campground because it’s not recreational in nature. However, another part of the city’s response indicates that this is likely not the case. When asked by the Journal-World if a longer-term campground that the city hopes to establish by March — which will not be recreational in nature — will qualify as a campground under the zoning code of the city, the city said it would be considered a campground for zoning purposes.
Another part of the city’s code defining the broader category of “transient dwellings,” of which campgrounds are a subcategory, states that these facilities also offer “food, beverage, and other sales and services intended for the convenience of customers. The city-run campground does not have a traditional kitchen, but food delivery is to the site from several outdoor parts. The city provides portable toilets for the site, but does not provide other such services or amenities.
This raises the question of whether the site would be considered a campground under the city’s zoning code if the city used its portable trailers which provide flush toilets, showers, laundry and other services. The city said it does not use these trailers, in part because the site does not have easy access to electricity.
City officials have long said the campground near Johnny’s is meant to be temporary, with an expected end date in March. The city said it hopes to have a longer-term campground established by then. City officials are currently trying to determine where this longer-term campground should be located. This process creates a new question: will the city follow its zoning code when deciding on a location for a longer-term campground.
The Journal-World asked Director of Planning and Development Services Jeff Crick if the city would limit its search for a new campground location to sites that meet campground zoning requirements. Crick could not commit to such limits, he said.
“I think to be fair, we’re going to have to look beyond that,” Crick said of the four zoning districts where campgrounds are a permitted use in the city’s zoning code.
This means the city could look to locate the longer-term campsite in the downtown central business district. Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence, is among a group of business owners urging the city to ensure the next campground isn’t in the central business district.
“Why put that next to a bar?” Renfro asks, what is the current situation with the campground.
Renfro reported multiple altercations between people at Johnny’s and people who live in the nearby camp. On Thursday, he announced he would reopen Johnny’s after closing the business for three days to protest the city’s handling of the adjacent camp. Despite the reopening, Renfro said he was concerned about the potential for disputes between customers and campers.
“The problem will be when I have customers who are crazy and one of those campers walks down the road,” Renfro said.
Renfro said the information about banned campgrounds in the central business district was new to him. Another member of the downtown business group also said he was never told that the city’s zoning code did not allow campgrounds in the district.
It is unclear whether the city commissioners were ever alerted to the fact that a campground is not a permitted use in the business district. The Aug. 25 memo advising commissioners of plans to create the campground makes no mention of the city’s zoning code prohibiting such uses in the neighborhood.
Instead, the staff memo argues that the campground is legal due to a 2020 City Commission amendment to its camping ordinance. This 2020 change added an exception to the order that individuals would not be ticketed for illegal camping in the central business district, if there are no beds available at a homeless shelter in the community.
But this change to the camping ordinance did not change the city’s zoning code. Essentially, changing the camping ordinance was a step to make sure the city didn’t criminalize poverty by giving tickets to people to camp downtown when they had no other place to go. However, this is apparently different from giving an entity – like the City of Lawrence – permission to erect a campground in the central business district.
The situation left Renfro worried that the city hadn’t been as open about the process of creating the campground as it should have been.
“I don’t think they were transparent about how this process worked,” Renfro said.
The process was definitely different from the last time the city held a camp for the homeless. In 2020, the city operated a homeless camp in Woody Park near Lawrence Memorial Hospital. As part of setting up this camp, the city applied for and the city commission voted for a special event permit for the campground to operate at the location. As part of that presentation to city commissioners, staff members said that one of the reasons they chose the Woody Park site is that it is “within land use zoning codes where camping is allowed”.
It is unclear why the city did not use the zoning code as part of its criteria for the current site. The main difference between Woody Park camp and the camp behind Johnny’s is that the town used its portable trailers to provide restrooms, showers, and laundry services, and there was a designated place for campers to meet. service providers. The Woody Park camp was much smaller than the current camp, housing about 20 people.
This week, city officials clarified why they weren’t using the Woody Park site for the current camp. Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said the Woody Park site met the physical and infrastructural requirements needed for a camp, but the city decided not to use the site because officials felt that they had made a political promise to the neighborhood to use the site only once for a campground.
As for the zoning categories that allow campgrounds, there are four, but one seems more likely than the others: open space parkland. The code permits campgrounds in the Community Commercial, Regional Commercial, and City Commercial zoning districts. However, the city does not own much, if any, land located within these zoning districts. The fourth category is the open space zoning district. The city owns a lot of land in this neighborhood, as most of the parks are open space and many vacant city-owned lots also fall into this category.
City officials have not publicly identified any locations they are considering for a longer-term campsite. At the request of Journal-Monde, the city has created an electronic map that shows all the parcels of property currently held by the city of Laurent. You can access this map here.