Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. With summer just around the corner, locals anticipate enjoying their favorite months of the year. Nothing is as welcome as the Colorado sunshine in the high country, the mountain streams, the wildflowers and the indescribable blue skies.
The joy of summer also brings tourists, hikers, bikers, shoppers, money spenders, and campers, which are a boon to local businesses. At least, according to the Nederland Police Department, 99 percent of these visitors are welcomed, respectful and valued customers who frequent the shops and restaurants.
Over the years, however, the other one percent is gaining in numbers, as well as in inappropriate behavior, sometimes violent, which has become not just a local, but a Front Range and a national problem.
The transient issue in Nederland and in other mountain towns has escalated, become a problem for businesses and for law enforcement agencies and the National Forest Service campgrounds, who have formed a task force to determine protocol in dealing with the homeless-related issues.
On Monday night, a group of about 20 Nederland business owners and concerned citizens gathered to share their stories and opinions. The meeting was led by Nederland Police Chief, Paul Carrill, who gave some history on the problem and told the group that the department was taking a proactive stand, the goal being to contact West Magnolia and Gordon Gulch campers more frequently and to offer more information about camping rules and regulations, along with interviewing those who appear to be living on USFS campgrounds for more than 14 days and tracking them if they try to move from campsite to campsite.
Chief Carrill told the group that the forest service contracts 40 hours of Boulder County Sheriff’s Office patrols, but that Nederland will make more random patrols. “Perception is everything,” he said. Campers will be less likely to stay illegally if the law enforcement presence is apparent. He explained that the patrol cars have been painted with the same logo and colors so they are instantly identifiable.
One business owner said there were rumors that the Boulder law enforcement agencies were putting homeless people on the bus and sending them to Nederland, telling them they could live for free. That is not the case, says Carrill.
“People who come here looking for a free place to live don’t spend money here,” said one business owner.
One of major issues is that campers can’t be judged by how they look. Carrill says, “We can’t know who these people are, the ones who are legit campers or the ones who are looking for free living space. It is our job to become safely involved and to take a good look at the people who camp here.”
Carrill said he met with mountain police chiefs and learned the problem exists all along the I-70 corridor, that people are turning abandoned mine shafts into housing structures outside of Georgetown. Social media has helped spread the word. When transients learn that they can get free food and clothes in Nederland, it hits the internet. Abuse of the Food Pantry and Clothing Closet has resulted in a tough love policy, for the protection of the town.
Only people with local identification can pick up food at the pantry. A camping bag with one night’s sustenance will be handed out to others.
One business owner said he had a man who brought clothes into his shop at least once a week, selling them for a bit of cash. It turned out the man was taking the clothes, many jackets, from the clothing closet and reselling them.
Another business owner was concerned that Nederland was profiling people. Carrill responded that it is behavior, not looks, that people should respond to, and that police officers have been trained to do the same.
Carrill emphasized that the NPD needs to be contacted when there is a complaint. Business owners can call 441-4444 and ask for the BCSO dispatch to contact a Nederland officer to respond.
“If you want someone to leave, we will enforce it with a warning, and then a ticket if they come back.”
The reality is that there are some transients who won’t listen to a business owner or employee, but will respond to a police presence. “We have to set a precedent as a business community,” said one owner. “We have to send the message that people can’t come here and do whatever they want, we have to let them know they can’t run us. People who don’t want contact with the police will leave.”
One suggestion was providing bathroom signage, such as “customers only,” and if the sign is ignored, call the NPD. “The department is paid $563,000 a year to protect you,” says Carrill. “Let us be the judge of a situation; that’s what we’re here for. We can’t always guarantee the outcome of a situation, but calling us is not abusing the PD, it is a reflection of activity in the community.”
Everyone has cell phones and it was suggested that business owners and employees call each other if there is a situation. Stories of people sleeping in residents’ cars, in chicken coops and under the train cars should have been reported, says Carrill. If nothing is done, these people will leave town and tell others it’s okay to camp illegally. The NPD needs to know about the incidents when they happen.
As far as current trespasses go, Chief Carrill says he had a loose moose show up at the Carousel last week and he kind of shushed it out of town, making sure it crossed the highway safely, and headed back home.