PNJ: Homeless camp buoyed by special magistrate’s ruling

PNJ: Homeless camp buoyed by special magistrate’s ruling

T.S. Strickland, tsstrickland@pnj.com; 6:58 p.m. CDT April 22, 2014

A special magistrate on Tuesday dismissed allegations by Escambia County officials that local homelessness outreach Sean’s Outpost had violated county code when establishing a homeless camp in Pensacola’s Mayfair neighborhood. The news came just one week after county officials voluntarily withdrew two related allegations that the camp created nuisance conditions.

At the center of the controversy is Satoshi Forest, a 9-acre homeless camp located off of Massachusetts Avenue and operated by Sean’s Outpost. The group, founded in March of 2013, is named after slain News Journal reporter Sean Dugas.

Since its founding, Sean’s Outpost has provided thousands of sack lunches and blankets to the area’s homeless and achieved international fame for its pioneering use of the digital currency bitcoin as a funding model. Despite all this, the group has also come under fire in recent months from Mayfair residents — who say they’re concerned about the effect the camp might have on property values and safety in their neighborhood.

At a special hearing last week, attorneys with the county voluntarily withdrew two complaints that alleged the camp created nuisance conditions and led to the accumulation of trash and debris. The remaining three allegations — dismissed Tuesday by Special Magistrate Janet Lander — revolved around whether the group needed permits, site plans, and approval by the county Development Review Committee to erect tents on the property.

In the order issued Tuesday, Lander wrote that the group would need to obtain a land use certificate only after the structures had been on the property for 30 days. After 180 days, they would also be required to obtain approval from the Development Review Committee, she wrote.

Michael Kimberl, co-founder of Sean’s Outpost, said Tuesday that he was pleased by the decision, though he added that the group’s worries were not over yet.

The Escambia County Commission has 30 days to appeal Lander’s decision and could decide to do so as early as April 29. Meanwhile, the county has filed suit against Sean’s Outpost seeking a court order to remove all tents and temporary shelters pending regulatory approval.

On Tuesday, the County Attorney’s Office released a statement saying it was evaluating how and whether the magistrate’s ruling would affect the case. Attorney Alistair McKenzie, who represents Sean’s Outpost, said he did not anticipate that it would.

He added, however, that the county had based their lawsuit on the allegation that the camp created nuisance conditions — a claim McKenzie said had been specifically denounced by county officials during testimony at last week’s hearing.

“I kind of have a hard time understanding how they can go forward with the civil lawsuit at this time,” he said. “… It just kind of seems like the county’s trying to get two bites at the same apple.”

Mayfair resident Richard Grimes, an outspoken critic of the camp, said he was disappointed by Lander’s ruling, but not discouraged.

“It’s not over,” he said. “There’s still other remedies. Everybody talks about how blighted Mayfair is and the crime problems we have. You put something like that here, you invite that potential … None of us are heartless people, but this is going to affect our property values and the safety of my kids.”

Kimberl said he understood Grimes’ concerns.

“I do know there are still people that are upset about us and what were doing,” he said, “but I would like them to at least try and be a little more open minded and recognize that we’re not trying to form some sort of pirate’s den out here. We’re just trying to do good.”

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