Leaders of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service want to locate a 52-bed transitional shelter for homeless men near the corner of Homestead Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Neighbors of the proposed Community House don't.
The debate has brewed for more than a year, and on Monday the Chapel Hill Town Council voted 6-2 to move forward with the IFC's special use permit application process, even though town-wide shelter guidelines have not been adopted.
"This community needs this conversation now," council member Gene Pease said, in voting with the majority.
The town will hold a hearing on the IFC's special use permit application, which must meet council approval before ground can be broken, at 7 p.m. March 21 at Chapel Hill Town Hall.
In preparation for the hearing, the town council asked the planning board last year to draft guidelines for all local shelters, including an examination of potential impacts on neighbors and access to public transportation and programs.
Among the positive impacts of the facility that the planning board considered was its proximity, within a quarter mile, to professional services, grocery stores and job development centers. Negative impacts were identified as the shelter's location in relation to neighborhoods, industrial centers, adult entertainment and beer and liquor stores.
The board proposed a Good Neighbor Plan to allow for regular feedback from neighbors and said a description of the security plan and a regular analysis of property values and crime statistics near the Community House should be considered.
But Monday night, council members wanted more precise language in the guidelines before accepting them. They said the special use permit process is adequate to proceed with the public hearing and that the discussion about the guidelines has helped frame the debate.
Neighbors who oppose the shelter's proposed location questioned why so much time has been spent on the guidelines if they won't be used in this case.
"I think to defer the shelter guidelines until after a decision is made on the IFC's [special use permit] makes really a mockery of the process for shelter guidelines," said Tim CoyneSmith, who lives nearby in the Parkside neighborhood.
"It devalues all the time, thought and effort that people have been putting into this for the last nine months."
"In light of the fact that we didn't have a public process on siting, we should have completed this conversation about guidelines," said Mark Peters, a resident of neighboring North Forest Hills.
Peters echoes many residents' concerns about the concentration of social services on Homestead Road and the proximity of the proposed shelter to two preschools and a park.
They are also worried that the IFC intends to use the facility not only to house homeless people—who are screened for eligibility and earn better accommodations and more privacy as they rehabilitate—but also to offer space on "white flag" nights, in which the building also would serve as an emergency shelter and offer space on a first-come, first-served basis.
Duke Energy sold the 1.6-acre site to UNC, which has offered to lease the parcel to the IFC for $1 a year if the council approves the application for the facility. Due to overcrowding, the shelter needs to relocate from its downtown location on Rosemary Street and has long sought a suitable site.
IFC Executive Director Chris Moran says the group—the nonprofit providing food, shelter and support to Orange County's homeless and underserved—supports the guidelines and "we in good spirit will probably use many of them," even though the council did not adopt them. He said the IFC is especially interested in being good neighbors and agreed with the plan.
But even if they were adopted, the guidelines would only provide recommendations, not concrete rules.
Council member Laurin Easthom, who, with council member Matt Czajkowski, opposed proceeding with the public hearing without the guidelines, says she wants to see "teeth," concrete specifics on how the IFC will meet the intent of the Good Neighbor Plan.
"How do we prevent problems and mitigate those that may occur?" she asked. "That's a big question."
"There are few, if any, special use permit processes that are going to be more important than this one," Czajkowski said.