The federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Jacksonville are investigating Bunnell city government’s zoning rules and practices as a result of the city’s decision in July to shut down the cold-weather homeless shelter that operated for 11 years at First United Methodist Church on North Pine Street.
The civil rights division is also requesting that the city allow the cold-weather shelter to open this winter, pending the resolution of the investigation. The city said it will comply.
The investigation, likely to be expensive, burdensome and time-consuming for the city, will also examine the city’s parallel vote to deny the church its request to continue serving as a shelter for emergency responders during disasters or other emergencies locally or regionally. The city imposed a restriction on the church that would limit it to have no more volunteers staying there at such times than if it were a residential home, which essentially ends the church’s function as an emergency responder shelter.
“Our investigation is preliminary in nature, and we have not made any determination as to whether there has been a violation” of federal law by the city, the Justice Department said in its letter to the city.
Both the investigation and the re-opening of the shelter this winter are victories for the Sheltering Tree, the non-profit that runs the shelter with 150 volunteers and the church’s support. Its board members contended that while some technicalities and paperwork may have been overlooked or been incomplete, it was entirely within the city’s power to ratify a special exception that would have allowed the church and the organization to continue providing services to the homeless. The Sheltering Tree is the only such shelter in the county.
Conversely, the federal investigation shines a light on one of the more high-profile recommendations to the city commission by City Manager Alvin Jackson and Community Development Director Rodney Lucas, who’d been on the job a matter of months at the time, and whose conduct toward Sheltering Tree officials and Rev. Terry Wines, the church’s pastor, had been dismissive. Neither Jackson nor Lucas had suggested any form of compromise, recommending outright denial of zoning exceptions to both the church and the Sheltering Tree. It was “just telling us no based on the weeping and whining and gnashing of teeth of neighbors,” as Wines described it.
But it was ultimately the city commission’s decision.
The Bunnell City Commission voted unanimously on July 8 to deny the special exceptions, claiming, in the words of Vice Mayor John Rogers, that it was “a zoning issue.” He was accurate in so far as defining the type of issue before the commission. But while it was in the city’s power to grant the exception, it did not do so because it was responding to local residents’ perceptions that the shelter was a place for the rest of the county to dump its problems on, after years of doing nothing to find an alternative. In fact, the city commission itself had implicitly endorsed the cold-weather shelter earlier in the decade after holding meetings with residents and opting, without a vote, to let the shelter be.
In July, with a new administration, the city was also responding to its own community development department, which was recommending the closure based on allegations that the shelter had long operated out of compliance by not having the right documents in place. But some of those allegations were false, among them the community development department’s claim that the Sheltering Tree had failed fire inspections.
By then, John Le Tellier, a board member of the Sheltering Tree, had already filed the complaint with the Justice Department. He’d done so the morning of June 13, nine days after the city’s zoning board recommended that the operation be shut down. Le Tellier did so before his board had even met to map out a strategy to preserve the shelter. When the board met with supporters on June 17, there was much general talk but no consensus strategy, and the city commission’s vote was all but foretold.
It’s never been clear where or how the Sheltering Tree would provide cold-weather services once that cold weather arrives. But, to the dismay of some supporters, the organization continued to provide occasional daytime services for the homeless at the church once a week. “We just did it,” Le Tellier said.
Last Friday (Oct. 22), the city received the Civil Rights Division’s letter informing Mayor Catherine Robinson of the investigation.
“That is phenomenal, that would be great,” Le Tellier said.
“We’re very pleased that the city has come to this decision, they’ve come to their senses basically,” Wines said of the city’s agreeing to let the shelter reopen during the investigation. “The department of justice has basically been answering the complaint. I’m just glad that they responded to it. It’s an answer to prayers, no doubt about it. I’ll give the DOJ all the credit in the world, but we were worried with November coming.” Wines had himself referred to the federal law the justice department is citing whenever he addressed the issue publicly.
The division is investigating the case under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law, the Justice Department’s Shina Majeed informed Bunnell in the letter, “prohibits application of a land use regulation that: (1) imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise absent a compelling justification pursued in the least restrictive means; (2) treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions; (3) discriminates against religious entities on the basis of religion or religious denomination; and/or ( 4) totally excludes or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”
The department is requesting reams of documentation and archives from Bunnell.
“We also understand that  the Church’s cold weather shelter was the only cold weather shelter in Bunnell and all of Flagler County and that the temperature in Flagler County can reach 40 degrees or lower as early as November,” Majeed’s letter reads. “Because of the impending arrival of colder temperatures, we respectfully request that City permit the Church to operate the cold weather shelter during the 2019-2020 winter season, while the United States conducts its investigation.”
Wade Vose, the city’s attorney, has been in contact with Noah Sacks, an attorney with the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice, winning an extension to Nov. 22 before Bunnell submits all requested documents. Vose notes in an Oct. 29 letter the distinction between who actually runs the cold-weather shelter (the church is often seen as its sponsor). “While we believe these facts, among many others, should be relevant to your inquiry,” Vose wrote, “we understand that it does not change the Department of Justice’s position at this preliminary stage concerning its directive that the cold weather shelter be allowed to operate during the pendency of your investigation.”
The Sheltering Tree is not a religious organization, but it operates in one, and Bunnell’s zoning rules applied to the church, not to the Sheltering Tree.
City Manager Alvin Jackson “has agreed that he and City staff will not engage in enforcement action with respect to the operation of the cold weather shelter on such nights until further direction can be provided by the Bunnell City Commission,” Vose wrote. The commission will formalize that directive at a special meeting on Nov. 4. “I have advised each member of the City Commission in the strongest terms that the City should comply with the United States Department of Justice’s directive in this regard.”
The Sheltering Tree’s board had not been informed of the decisions as of today: Le Tellier learned of them from a reporter.
With winter coming, Sheltering Tree advocates were talking about re-opening the shelter in defiance of the city’s ruling, but it didn’t gain favor. “There has been some discussions to just go ahead and do it and face the consequences,” Wines said. “I’m not going to speak for the Sheltering Tree, but the church decided we thought the best plan was to go ahead and let the process work. I have no problem with civil disobedience when it’s needed, but I just didn’t think it was going to be productive and I don’t think anybody else did either, so it’s good we waited it out.”