With a roomful of people watching, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners took action Thursday night aimed at providing city property for an expansion of the Shepherd’s House homeless shelter after a previous plan was rejected.
“This is the kind of situation you want your government to be faced with, and do what the community would like for you to do,” Mayor David Rowe said while surveying a standing-room-only crowd of about 115 people. They filled the council meeting room and spilled into a lobby outside.
And what that “situation” led to was a 5-0 vote by the commissioners to appoint a city delegation to explore property-conveyance options with officials of the Shepherd’s House board of directors and come back with specifics at the board’s next meeting on June 7.
Before that decision, Mike Bowman, the chairman of the homeless shelter board, who spoke during Thursday night’s meeting, said it is agreeable to a plan by Mount Airy officials to provide municipal property for the Shepherd’s House project. Options presented include giving land, selling it or possibly leasing it for $1 per year on a long-term basis.
One revelation that emerged Thursday night was that Shepherd’s House officials are not exactly married to their original plan: expanding the shelter behind its present facility at 227 Rockford St. fronting Spring Street.
Two weeks earlier, the commissioners had voted 4-1 to deny a rezoning request to accommodate that move and allow the Shepherd’s House to serve a client caseload of 50 rather than the present 18 in order to address a growing homeless population.
The commissioners opposing the rezoning believed the expanded shelter would be inappropriate for the historic district the Rockford Street site lies within and cited opposition from “many” citizens.
“You have opened our eyes a little bit,” Bowman told city officials Thursday night. “We’re looking at Spring Street a lot differently.”
The board chairman said that even if the commissioners were to reconsider their earlier action, Shepherd’s House officials would now have some unwillingness about building at the location first eyed.
“It’s obvious to me and (the shelter) board that maybe we’re not wanted in that neighborhood,” Bowman said.
“You closed that door,” he added in reference to the rezoning denial there, “now help us open another door.”
Spencer’s site offer
That opening possibly will now occur on the former Spencer’s industrial property owned by the municipality. Citizen uproar over the vote two weeks ago spawned a proposal, by commissioners Jim Armbrister and Steve Yokeley, for space there near the corner of Franklin and South streets to be provided in some manner for the homeless shelter project.
“The vote last time was not against the Shepherd’s House — it was not against the Shepherd’s House expansion,” Yokeley explained Thursday night.
“There’s always room for compromise,” he said in reference to the city land offer at the Spencer’s site, for which many details must be worked out between the two parties.
The commissioners stopped short of simply voting to give property for the shelter, as Commissioner Dean Brown made a motion to do.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell advised against providing “undefined property” under non-specific terms, with Commissioner Jon Cawley also describing that as “premature.”
Instead, the board settled on the motion that passed 5-0, directing a city team of Campbell, City Manager Barbara Jones, Mayor Rowe and Planning Director Andy Goodall to meet with the Shepherd’s House board and devise specifics. Based on that discussion, these will be considered by the commissioners at their early June meeting.
The discussion also indicated that other city-owned tracts besides the Spencer’s site might join the mix, although Shepherd’s House officials like what they see there.
“I walked that piece of land today and it has potential,” Bowman said.
However, the exact scope of property offered could be a sticking point.
The Spencer’s parcel totals about 3.2 acres, but once rights of way, access and other elements are figured in and reduce that scope, “all of a sudden the 3.2-acre gift becomes a 2.2-acre gift,” Bowman said, or even smaller.
“Steve, I don’t think 1.5 acres is going to get it,” the board chairman said in reference to a figure mentioned by Yokeley.
Bowman said the Shepherd’s House could “live with” 2.5 to three acres, which would allow for future growth.
“I think everything’s always open to negotiation,” Yokeley responded.
The expansion plan for the existing shelter site targeted a 1.1-acre tract.
Although a huge crowd of Shepherd’s House supporters was in attendance Thursday, only about five people actually spoke on the issue during a public forum. This came after the favorable decision.
The speakers included local industrialist John Springthorpe II, who encouraged the giving of land by municipal leaders “to solve the problem that you created.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.