In an unexpected move, Mount Airy officials voted Thursday afternoon to deny a rezoning request that would have allowed a major expansion of the city’s only homeless shelter.
“It really was very surprising,” said an obviously stunned Mary Boyles after the Shepherd’s House executive director abruptly left council chambers at the Municipal Building on the heels of the 4-1 decision by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Concerns about the appropriateness of an expansion by the Shepherd’s House in the city’s historic district, to the rear of its existing facility at 227 Rockford St., were raised among board members along with the impact on the area as a whole.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley based her objection to the rezoning — sought to permit new facilities allowing the homeless shelter to increase its client capacity from 18 to about 50 — on Mount Airy’s Comprehensive Plan. It is a long-range document adopted years ago to guide future land-use decisions, one often consulted by city officials, which prescribes that such developments have a “minimum” impact on the affected area.
“This is going to be a big impact,” Brinkley said of the enlarged shelter. “There’s a big impact on the adjacent area — that’s my concern.”
Brinkley saying she had been contacted by many citizens on the issue, who were bothered about having the larger facility near downtown Mount Airy and other areas.
“I don’t want to be the bad guy,” Brinkley said in making the motion to deny the rezoning, explaining that she might someday be in need of a homeless facility.
Commissioner Dean Brown questioned the appropriateness of the expanded shelter in the city’s historic district which he feared would be undermined as a result.
“I like the idea of a new Shepherd’s House,” Brown said of the residential-care facility envisioned for a 1.1-acre site behind the existing facility which fronts Spring Street across from Hutchens Cleaners.
He added that the project has been needed for some time, to meet the growing problem of homelessness, and that he liked the residential-looking design of the new unit.
However, Brown said it is not suited to the historic district covering the area in question and other neighborhoods nearby, suggesting that it should be located somewhere outside this district.
“I’m representing hundreds of citizens who’ve talked to me and represent the historic commission,” he said of a local group that oversees the district.
Brown and Brinkley were joined in their opposition to the rezoning proposal by commissioners Jim Armbrister and Steve Yokeley.
It called for altering the present classification of the property eyed for the expansion, R-6 (General Residential)/B2 CD (General Business-Conditional District), to R-4 CD (Residential and Office-Conditional District).
Conditional zoning typically refers to flexibility for the use of land in a way not otherwise permitted within a particular zone, which may be allowed as long as certain conditions are met. In the case of the planned homeless facility, its use was to be limited to residential care, shelter and halfway house functions, with any additional rooms or principal structures to require approval by the commissioners.
No one had spoken in opposition to the requesting rezoning on April 19 during a required public hearing. Also, no one opposed the plan at a March 26 meeting of the Mount Airy Planning Board, which voted 6-0 to recommend the rezoning. The commissioners weren’t bound by that preliminary action.
Cawley lone dissenter
Commissioner Jon Cawley cast the one vote against Brinkley’s motion to deny the rezoning after it appeared he was against the homeless center expansion — for a totally different reason.
In posing questions beforehand to Boyles, Cawley was told by the shelter director that the Shepherd’s House — which is not open to single men — serves homeless persons from out of the county.
“We do serve more counties than just Surry, but 76 percent of our occupancy is from Surry,” Boyles said.
“That just seems to be a problem for Surry County,” Cawley said of his fears that out-of-county clients might seek social-services aid locally and tax resources that already are strained.
“It’s the fiduciary consideration that I’m looking at now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s responsible to spend tax dollars for someone who isn’t from Surry County.”
Cawley did offer an opening.
“I think if we could limit it (the shelter) to Surry County people, I could support it,” he added concerning the rezoning. “I don’t mind rezoning the property — I’m concerned about what comes after that.”
Yet Cawley wound up voting against Brinkley’s motion, after city Planning Director Andy Goodall told the board that limiting shelter occupancy to Surry Countians would not be “easily enforceable” as a condition of the rezoning.
Boyles counters concerns
During the question-and-answer exchange before the vote, the Shepherd’s House official addressed concerns raised by board members, including saying that “a lot” of the shelter’s occupants do not rely on public assistance because they have jobs.
One reason for expanding the shelter in the middle of the city is so residents can walk to work places nearby, since many lack transportation to reach jobs elsewhere, the executive director said.
She also said Shepherd’s House clients aren’t running loose during the day.
“They are held accountable,” Boyles said. “Our hope is that … we are putting productive people back into Surry County.”
Boyles further questioned the sacredness of the historic district, calling the house next door to the present homeless shelter “an eyesore” that includes a camper parked on the property.
Goodall also referred to the presence of an amphitheater nearby, which apparently was constructed without concern for any implications for the historic district.
After leaving the meeting room, Boyles said there is no Plan B for another location for the shelter expansion. She had told city officials that $650,000 in private donations have been received for the project, with plans for a fundraising campaign and grant seeking also in the works.
Just before the 4-1 vote, Mayor David Rowe commented on the situation with the Shepherd’s House, which last year had to turn away 568 people seeking the temporary housing due to lack of space and 413 in 2016.
“My sense of compassion compels me to say ‘what are we going to do with these people?’” Rowe said.
“I’m supportive of the Shepherd’s House and I think we ought to do what we can do, but I’m just the mayor.”