City Hall erupted in applause Thursday night when Mount Airy officials voted to undo a previous decision regarding the Shepherd’s House and approved rezoning that allows the homeless shelter to expand at its present location.
“Just thank the good Lord above,” a jubilant Shepherd’s House Executive Director Mary Boyles told a reporter after the decision, among hugs and shouts of joy from a crowd that filled the city council meeting room.
The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners rescinded action it had taken on May 3 to to deny a rezoning request to permit the homeless shelter to expand behind its present location at 227 Rockford St. They replaced that decision with one Thursday night to approve the rezoning and allow the project to proceed as first planned.
It is sought on a 1.1-acre site behind the existing facility to allow a client caseload of 50 to be served at a time rather than the present 18 in order to address a growing homeless population.
No opposition to the rezoning had been expressed at a public hearing held before the 4-1 vote on May 3, and the city planning board had approved the project. The commissioners rejected the proposed rezoning, from R-6 (General Residential)/B2 CD (General Business-Conditional District) to R-4 CD (Residential and Office-Conditional District), citing opposition from citizens opposed to that move.
Based on discussion at the time, citizens had contacted board members privately and questioned whether the expanded shelter was suitable for the historic district it lies within, although that same district includes an amphitheater constructed in recent years.
However, no one ever came forward publicly to state their opposition.
Meanwhile, that was not the case with Shepherd’s House supporters who were shocked by the rezoning denial, and have since attended multiple commissioner meetings in large numbers to make their opinions known.
That was the case again Thursday night when the council chambers were packed with supporters urging the commissioners to reverse the May 1 decision. Many wore specially made T-shirts with the slogans “I support the Shepherd’s House” and “United We Stand.”
About 20 people spoke on the issue during the public forum portion of the meeting, which came on the heels of the city government recently offering municipal-owned property elsewhere for the shelter expansion. However, it was deemed not as suitable as the present location, and it was pointed out Thursday night that thousands of dollars had been spent on design and other costs that were based on the the project taking shape there.
Legal action also had been threatened against the city regarding the May vote.
All this led up to a 5-0 decision by the commissioners Thursday night to allow the expansion of the city’s only homeless facility to proceed as initially planned.
“This has never been against the Shepherd’s House,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley assured Thursday night’s gathering, saying that some citizens just questioned the appropriateness of the expansion at the Rockford Street site fronting Spring Street.
“I want this to be a time for unity,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley also told the large audience. It earlier had greeted her with jeers after she attempted to relay the sentiments of an elderly disabled citizen opposing the expansion and refused to give his name for fear of repercussions.
“We need to keep growing together, not apart and maybe this is going to do it,” Brinkley said as she and other commissioners seemed happy about reversing their earlier action.
Many of the citizens who spoke expressed support for the work the Shepherd’s House has done in the community, including formerly homeless people who have resided there and benefited from its services.
The client list has included many children, who were mentioned by one forum speaker, Robert McCreary, the pastor of Haymore Baptist Church, which owns the property where the shelter now sits and that targeted for the expansion.
McCreary referred to the compassion shown this week for children separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border after entering the country illegally.
“I wonder why we can’t have the same kind of compassion for children in Mount Airy,” he said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.