Something is amiss in Bunnell. The city that calls itself the crossroads of Flagler County is losing its bearings, its heart, and sometimes its mind. It is becoming petty. It is becoming mean and resentful.
And the city that begins every meeting with a prayer and invocation to Christian love and charity may be violating a federal law forbidding discrimination against small houses of worship and their various ministries over land use and zoning matters, as the city’s persecution of First United Methodist Church and the Sheltering Tree there suggests.
Last fall it cut and pasted St. Augustine’s anti-panhandling ordinance, one of the harshest in the state. Like St. Augustine, Bunnell pretended it was only going after “aggressive” panhandlers, not panhandlers in general. That was a lie. The preamble of the ordinance certainly claims that it’s only addressing beggars who can’t take no for an answer. But the heart of the ordinance is an outline of prohibitions that, using distance and time restrictions, ends up banning beggars from the city’s commercial zones, or at least giving police the authority to bully them and, get this, fine them from $100 to $250 for every violation. Maybe the city can garnish begging wages to get the money back.
Weeks later the city approved overly strict and costly regulations for people who gather in large numbers anywhere in the city, supposedly copying other governments who do likewise with the film and outdoor entertainment industry–as if Bunnell had either. It was just a crowd control edict, mostly directed at blacks, masquerading as a motion picture ordinance.
In April, Bunnell lost its mind in a different direction, imagining that the county was moving its county seat to Palm Coast along with a sheriff’s district office. Bunnell threatened to sue over that one, as if it had taxpayer money to spare fighting the very county that bailed it out for years by giving Bunnell’s City Hall a home when it couldn’t afford one of its own. As if sheriff’s deputies and detectives weren’t constantly bailing out Bunnell’s police. Now that the sheriff’s office needs a bit of help for permanence of its own, suddenly the city is pretending it’s an island, its responsibility toward the law enforcement agency as non-existent as its sense of mutual aid. It seemed to come to its senses this week on this one.
Then at the end of May the city’s zoning board, or three of its five members, anyway, voted to deny the Sheltering Tree a permit that would have allowed it to continue operating the county’s only cold-weather shelter, or shelter of any kind, for the homeless at the Methodist Church on Pine Street. The 11-year-old operation that gave Bunnell a heart of gold was shut down by three unforgiving men and a city administration that mistook itself the Inquisition. One of them, Howard Kane, once served on the Sheltering Tree board and still serves as a church trustee but never disclosed a word of either, a gross ethical lapse.
The city had fair arguments. The Sheltering Tree has been operating without the proper permits or certain safety measures. But it was there to secure those permits, just as the church was there to secure the permits and pledge making upgrades that would allow it to continue being a shelter for volunteer emergency responders during local disasters. It’s the sort of request any civilized board would bend over backward to enable, or would be–should be–embarrassed to deny, especially to a church and a non-profit that have an unparalleled record of actually doing what others only talk about: helping the homeless, albeit in very limited ways. The shelter opens only on very cold nights, and did so a mere 19 nights last year.
Nineteen nights. That’s what this is about. That, and letting other church group use the church’s roof to shelter in times of disasters so they can spend their days helping residents across the county pick up the pieces after hurricanes and floods, as was the case in 2016 and 2017.
The zoning board banned both. Sure, it’s allowing the church to continue hosting teams of responders. But those teams must be limited to the same number of people who may stay in a residential home: six. That nullifies the church’s mission during disasters.
The board acted toward the church and the Sheltering Tree as if they were bandits trying to get away with something, instead of the rare charitable organizations whose 150 volunteers actually do something meaningful to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most. Strange how the Sheltering Tree can count on immense support from across the county–from anyone but Bunnell.
The board was mean. The city administration was offensive. Community Development Director Rodney Lucas was in charge of the item before the zoning board. He gave opponents of the Sheltering Tree a pass, of course, not questioning a single one of their made-up facts, exaggerations and chicken-little scenarios about homeless people running rampant and terrorizing the neighborhood. No doubt some of the homeless loiter and make a mess here and there, and might at times look threatening, as they would whether a shelter exists there or not (as it does not 95 percent of the year). Our prejudices are such in early 21st century America that poverty that allows itself to be visible, shabby, foul-odored and booze-hazed is often associated with menace. Why else would cities like Bunnell be pretending to ban it with their silly ordinances?
But when church and Sheltering Tree representatives spoke, Lucas treated them like criminals, his tone, his language and his questions intended to crucify rather than enlighten. His questions, in any case, were out of place and inappropriate, because he’d already provided the answers. He had his turn. But he wanted to administer a beating. He did.
If that’s the kind of behavior and regulations rookie Manager Alvin Jackson is bringing to Bunnell–Alvin Jackson who answers every phone call with his “great day in Bunnell” jingle, and has his secretary do likewise–we’re in for a nasty throwback to the city’s cruder and amateur days, which the city commission had effectively cleaned up in the past half dozen years. It’s as if Jim Landon’s heavy hand never left. It just got grafted onto Bunnell, with Jackson’s penchant for gloving daggers in kumbayas. No, it’s not a great day in Bunnell.
And it’s possibly a lot worse than boorish behavior. As a top municipal official here alerted me, Bunnell may be in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, more commonly known as RLUIPA. The Department of Justice explains application of the law this way: “Religious assemblies, especially smaller or unfamiliar ones, may be illegally discriminated against on the face of zoning codes and also in the highly individualized and discretionary processes of land use regulation. Zoning codes and landmarking laws may illegally exclude religious assemblies in places where they permit theaters, meeting halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes. Or the zoning codes or landmarking laws may permit religious assemblies only with individualized permission from the zoning board or landmarking commissions, and zoning boards or landmarking commission may use that authority in illegally discriminatory ways.”
That sounds awfully similar to the “special exception” Bunnell is imposing on the Sheltering Tree and the church, an exception it did not require for 11 years running, even though every one of its three previous managers, all of its city commissioners, its entire staff and police department knew of the church’s mission and worked with it and the Sheltering Tree to further it.
What the hell changed?
The Sheltering Tree is appealing the zoning board’s decision to the city commission. It’s the commission’s chance to do a lot more than fix an injustice. The commission can and must reassert Bunnell’s good name.
Note: The Bunnell City Commission meets at City Hall, 201 West Moody Boulevard, Bunnell, at 7 p.m. June 24. The Sheltering Tree item is toward the end of the agenda. The meeting is open to all.