by Joe Schwartz
All future homeless shelters in Chapel Hill will have to go through the town's infamously rigorous special-use permit process, and there won't be a cap on the number of beds, the Town Council decided Monday.
The unanimous vote came after an extensive and emotional two-hour discussion during which residents continued to staunchly oppose a new shelter in their neighborhood. In addition, Council learned that the current shelter could have been operating with more beds than the ordinance allowed.
The Inter-Faith Council raised the issue of amending the land use management ordinance as the group continues to seek to place its new 52-bed men's shelter near Homestead Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. While preparing the application for the Community House, IFC leaders noticed the ordinance capped the number of beds allowed in a shelter at 25. No one could explain how the number was determined, and the town's planning department suggested removing the language.
"This discussion is really about a number, not a special-use permit," IFC Director Chris Moran said.
Residents of Parkside and North Forest Hills, which abut the proposed new site, felt otherwise, and used the opportunity to point to crime stats and other concerns.
Speaking on behalf of the neighbors, resident Mark Peters directed Town Council members to a Web site he created to analyze crime distribution in Chapel Hill. Others who spoke said that lifting the cap would set a precedent allowing shelters of any size.
Council members, who voted unanimously against a cap, argued the opposite point. Before Monday’s amendment passed, proposed shelters that met zoning regulations were automatically approved and exempted from the public process and council review. The accepted amendment now required a full review of all shelters, no matter the size.
"If there was ever a good use of a special-use permit process it was for a shelter," Councilwoman Sally Greene said. "We want to be involved. Our citizens want their voices to be heard."
The council did engage in a vigorous back and forth about the current shelter on Rosemary Street, which Moran says shelter housed 81 people Sunday night due to the cold weather. They determined, with help of Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos, that the 25-bed cap has not and would not have been enforced on that site, no matter what happened at Monday's meeting.
Also at the council meeting, the group reviewed plans to seek more public input in Carolina North discussions, and ironically decided more public input was needed before accepting a plan on cultivating public input. They also saw preliminary designs on the artwork made of repurposed metal slated to line town greenways. The Town Council moved to gather more information on culling the deer population. Read more in Wednesday's Indy.