The Waynesville planning board is digging in to where homeless shelters, half-way houses and soup kitchens should be allowed to set up shop.
“Are we going to have limitations on where these things fit?” posed Susan Teas Smith, planning board chairwoman.
The zoning laws aren’t quite clear as it stands, and the need to clarify them comes in response to numerous concerns raised by the public in recent months: the hunt for a new soup kitchen location, talk of another homeless shelter, a group home for women in recovery, and a new headquarters for entities that help the homeless.
The town has fielded a litany of concerns about the side effects a homeless shelter or soup kitchen could have on surrounding neighborhoods, depending on where they end up.
“Residents are not going to put up with possibly detrimental projects, which put further strain on our community,” said Eric Overholtz, one of numerous residents who have spoken out recently at town board meetings.
The complaints, coupled with a lack of clarity in the zoning laws, prompted the town board to ask the planning board to look into what’s permitted where.
The planning board began wading through the morass last month, despite some questions on exactly what they were supposed to sort out.
“These things popping up are kind of like whack a mole,” said Smith. “What is the underlying community concern that we are addressing? Is it about where could you put these? Can they be in a certain neighborhood? What is the town’s goal? What are we trying to accomplish?”
“That’s a good point. It is not clearly articulated,” replied Town Planning Director Elizabeth Teague during a discussion at the planning board meeting Monday night.
Zoning questions first came to light back in the spring, when the Open Door soup kitchen learned it would have to close its doors in Frog Level and began hunting for a new location — which it still hasn’t found.
“Our board members started hearing from the public ‘I don’t want this near me,’” Teague said.
The zoning rules for soup kitchens are somewhat muddy. It appears they are currently allowed anywhere in town as along as they’re housed by a religious institution — even in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
But just what qualifies as a religious institution is up for debate. Could anyone declare themselves a religious institution if they simply do a prayer circle a couple times a week?
“It’s a very broad thing,” said planning board member Don McGowan. “We need to define in a better way what a religious institution is.”
McGowan suggested a two-fold litmus test to clarify it: they should meet the IRS tax definition of a religious institution and can only house a soup kitchen on their main campus.
That would keep churches from using off-site property for a soup kitchen.
“Otherwise, we could have satellite campuses springing up all over the place,” McGowan said.
Another question facing the planning board is where homeless shelters should be permitted. There’s a movement afoot to start a new homeless shelter in the county — one that would serve any and all homeless, as opposed to Haywood Pathways Center.
The Pathways center in Hazelwood is often called a homeless shelter, but it’s not in the true sense of the word. Clients must be drug-free and formally enrolled in life-skills training and counseling programs with the goal of re-entering society to remain at the center.
“If you are coming just for shelter and not doing the program, there’s a limited amount of time you can stay,” said Pathways Director Mandy Haithcox.
Aside from being drug-free, Pathways also doesn’t accept transients nor clients with severe mental health problems, addicted to drugs or a violent criminal past.
“I think what is missing in Haywood County is a place where people can go who have those kinds of issues,” Haithcox said.
Calls to create a low-barrier homeless shelter have grown in recent months — including the Waynesville homeless task force identifying it as a top pressing need.
But the town’s current zoning rules don’t allow homeless shelters anywhere in town.
“It is this gap that we leave out completely right now,” Teague said.
The town could face opposition no matter where it allows homeless shelters, however. Hazelwood residents have preemptively mobilized to voice concerns at the mere prospect of it going on their side of town.
They’re not the only ones who aren’t keen on the idea. Having a homeless shelter near the existing Pathways Center could be a bad influence on those trying to rebuild their lives and escape their old cycle.
“Personally, I don’t want a low-barrier shelter right next door to Pathways. We are trying to get our clients away from people, places and things,” Haithcox said.
One zoning rule could be a distance requirement, like not allowing a shelter or half-way house within half a mile of an existing one.
Planning board members Michael Blackburn questioned whether that would be too limiting, however.
“I understand we need to say, ‘Here’s where these can occur.’ But we don’t do this with anyone else. We don’t say ‘you can only have so many restaurants in a particular neighborhood,’” Blackburn said.
Some residents don’t want it anywhere in Waynesville. Peggy Hannah, a Hazelwood resident, asked why Waynesville should “shoulder the burden” for the whole county.
“Don’t you think we in Waynesville have done our part?” echoed Lisa Overholtz, who spoke during the public comment period of the last town board meeting. “Would you want your children to see people performing public sex acts, urinating and defecating in public, and throwing used drug needles all over the place?”
Half-way, boarding houses
Yet another element that prompted the planning board study is a group home for women with children who are recovering from drug addiction near downtown. It has been largely devoid of complaints or disturbances since opening this summer, however.
Still, it prompted call to town hall and raised zoning questions. It doesn’t meet the definition of a half-way house — defined as a living facility for people readjusting to society following a criminal offense. Instead, it appears to meet the definition of a boarding house, which have few restrictions on where they can go.
“Someone could buy a large house in a neighborhood and make it into a group home,” Smith said.
Half-way houses can’t be located within a half a mile of another one, but there’s no such limitation on boarding houses. And what if a homeless shelter masqueraded as a boarding house?
“Are we going to get a neighborhood of shelters that will have a mix of people that shouldn’t be hanging around together due to their own recovery programs?” Smith said.
Yet another issue that’s received a flood of complaints the past two months is a one-stop-shop clearinghouse for nonprofits, faith-based groups and agencies providing services to the homeless and needy.
The Bethel Resource Center on South Main Street billed itself as a professional office building when seeking a town permit. But nearby residents and merchants fear it will morph into a place where homeless come and go to get mail, do laundry and pick up food boxes. They say it has already become a hangout spot even though it isn’t open yet.
“It’s suddenly become a magnet for the homeless,” said Eric Overholtz, a nearby resident.
The planning board is starting from scratch The first step is to refine definitions of what constitutes a homeless shelter, half-way house, boarding house, soup kitchen and religious institution.
It could be a complex process, even delineating things like a temporary emergency shelter as opposed to a year-round homeless shelter.
“A temporary shelter is for a fixed moment in time for a fixed event, usually life-threatening weather like a tornado or sub-freezing temperatures,” said Byron Hickox, town zoning administrator.
Next, the planning board would determine suitable locations where each use would be allowed.
“If we can create these categories with clear definitions, you can start asking ‘Where is a reasonable place these could go?’” said Hickox. “It might be a long time before we specifically saw a use that fit that exact definition, but at least it would be there.”
Whatever recommendations the planning board comes up with would be sent to the town board for the final say, with an opportunity for a public input.