A proxy war took place before the Bunnell City Commission this evening–a war over a church’s right to build its own showers and bathrooms that was really a war over the church’s hosting of a shelter used for the homeless on rare cold nights, or the church possibly allowing the homeless to use the showers to get cleaned once a week.
When it was over, the commission voted 5-0 to deny First United Methodist Church on Pine Street so much as new showers or new bathrooms, in essence preventing the church from operating as an overnight relief center for volunteer emergency crews during natural emergencies–the way it operated during Hurricanes Irma and Matthew.
The war isn’t over. The commission is still expected to hear an appeal by volunteer organizers of the homeless shelter itself to be allowed to continue to do the work they’ve been doing for 11 years. Tonight’s decision, by a commission at full strength, was a preview of how its vote will very likely go on that issue, dimming prospects that the homeless shelter will ever open again on Pine Street.
The vote this evening signals that the city commission’s support for its city manager Alvin Jackson’s efforts to end Bunnell’s role as a de facto location for social works and further reduces options for a small but visible homeless population even as politicians’ talk of wanting to address the homeless issue has never been so frequent.
The question before the city commission this evening was whether the First Methodist Church on Pine Street could run a temporary overnight shelter–not for the homeless, but for emergency relief workers during major emergencies. The church also was seeking to build bathrooms and showers. The city’s planning board had approved the special exception at the end of May, albeit with strict limits: the church could have two showers, and it could house a team of no more than six emergency relief workers during emergencies. The church did not want those limitations.
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Local residents, neighbors of the church, did not oppose its relief works. They were uneasy about the showers, because they feared the church would make them available to homeless people. But they did not appeal the zoning board’s decision.
In an unusual move, it was the city’s own development director, Rodney Lucas, who appealed the zoning board’s decision. He wanted the city commission to deny the church’s special exception outright, without conditions. Lucas’s move was not necessarily surprising: he had publicly–and rudely–lambasted the church’s pastor, Terry Wines, and church volunteers, at the zoning board hearing, without any intervention by zoning board members. The surprise was that he would be the one to file the appeal, his move condoned by City Manager Alvin Jackson: administrators at any level of local government don’t usually appeal the decisions of boards appointed by elected commissions. “That’s common,” Jackson said during a break, defending the appeal. “Either the applicant or the city has the right to appeal.”
The city commission heard Lucas’s presentation about the church’s application, though much of it had nothing to do with the application in question. Rather, it touched on the cold-weather shelter run by the Sheltering Tree, the non-profit organization that operates out of the church, and that’s also seeking a separate special exception to do its work.
Lucas outlined the same reasons he’d outlined at the planning board in opposition to both the Sheltering Tree’s operations and the church’s request for an allowance to operate as a location for emergency-relief workers. Conflating the two issues, Lucas cited 10 reasons, most general claims unrelated to policy, some inaccurate (such as a lack of parking), some having nothing to do with the city or the issue at hand (such as the claim that the county or state or federal authorities have not “authorized them to operate as a shelter”): it’s strictly a city issue that does not need county, state or federal sanction. (“All those things are fixable, right?” one member of the public told the commission, referring to Lucas’s list.)
In a repeat of the zoning board’s passivity, the commission asked Lucas a few questions later in the meeting but did not challenge his claims, though Mike Kuypers, a church trustee who was representing the church’s interest in the exception, did.
Lucas had claimed the church did not have a license to do its relief work. “We do in fact have a city license,” Kuypers said.Lucas claimed it didn’t have a business-tax receipt. It does. The church allegedly failed fire inspections: it did not, and has an inspection certificate to prove it, he said. The church had an emergency shower-trailer since Hurricanes Irma and Matthew. The city ordinance recognizes that such facilities are allowed during declared emergencies. The county has a declared emergency, still open to this day since Hurricanes Irma and Matthew. Kuypers presented the documentation to City Manager Alvin Jackson. “He decided those were not good enough, I guess,” Kuypers said. The trailer was dismantled and sent back to Virginia. “Eliminating the church as a disaster response facility “in my opinion would be a mistake,” he said, considering that the city would be “scrambling” to find relief after a natural disaster.
Mayor Catherine Robinson then opened the floor to the public. And what followed was itself a repeat of similar presentations that unfolded before the zoning board and the city commission earlier this year: supporters of the church and the Sheltering Tree toggled with nearby neighbors of the church opposed to the homeless’ presence.
Wines attempted to focus the discussion strictly on the church’s application relating to its disaster-relief operations. It worked only up to a point, as speaker after speaker said the two issues were related, or inseparable.
“That is what it’s about for me and that is what it’s about for a lot of people in the room. That’s the elephant in the room and that is what needs to be addressed,” Kim Smith, a Chapel Street resident in Bunnell, said. Of the homeless, Smith said, the church “only helps them a small part of the week,” while the other 90 percent of the time, they’re out roaming about in the neighborhood.
Several other Bunnell residents (and one from Palm Coast) echoed Smith’s concerns, always endorsing the church’s relief work in emergencies but not its proxy help to the homeless: a majority in that group were willing to preserve the church’s permission to have its relief operations in emergencies, but to forbid its amenities from being used by the homeless.
“The church wants to do a bathroom project, but the neighbors want to know who’s going to use it,” Susan Bickings, who heads the Sheltering Tree’s board, said. “So we’re going to tell the church what kind of church to have and what to do.” She called it “cynicism.”
But there was another clear divide in the speakers: those supporting the church and the Sheltering Tree were overwhelmingly from Palm Coast, Flagler Beach or elsewhere. Those opposing the exceptions or wanting them restricted were from Bunnell. Commissioners made a point of asking every speaker to say precisely where he or she was from, as if to underline the divide–and give commissioners room to vote as they did.
Jim Brown of Bunnell summed up the nativist sentiment: “Palm Coast does not need to bring the Sheltering Tree to Bunnell to be successful,” he said. “There’s lot of angst, there’s a lot of distrust.” He said some people think the Bunnell Police Department “has failed” the city, with a lot of homeless people loitering in the city. The controls are not adequate, he said. He called the conglomeration of the homeless in Bunnell “a magnet” and referred to “the riff raff” and “the bad side” that the homeless bring, or “these groups that are starting to wander our streets” and that bring “fear.” (He also claimed that Bickings, the Sheltering Tree’s chairman, “makes $100,000 a year.” She makes “zero,” someone in the audience corrected.) “It’s time to represent the people of Bunnell,” Brown concluded.
Elbert Tucker, a former Bunnell city commissioner, spoke of his own volunteer services during emergencies (for his church), but cast doubt on the Methodist Church’s designs. “I’m not so sure that that’s a necessity that doesn’t come about only every so often,” he said. ‘I’m not altogether convinced there’s a big need for showers at the Methodist church.”
The supporters of the church and the Sheltering Tree spoke with their own convictions, but as the segment devoted to the issue wore toward the two-hour mark, their cause seemed less hopeful. “You’re all saying no, no, no, but you’re not offering a solution,” one speaker (from Palm Coast) said. “What can we as a community to do make this acceptable to the surrounding community. You’re not giving us answers.”
Public input over, Lucas, the community development director, again made the administration’s case.
“It’s a complicated issue, there are multiple issues and that complicates the process,” Robinson said. But the commission had few questions.
“My inclination,” commission member Jan Reeger said, “would be to deny the exception with a provision that if they wish to come back at a later time, we wouldn’t charge the application fee.” But she said the church’s whole approach needs to be rethought. The denial sailed through.