Niagara Gazette —
The Niagara Falls Zoning Board of Appeals has tabled a decision on a challenge from a Christian homeless shelter in the city’s Memorial Park neighborhood to a ruling from city inspectors.
The Niagara Rescue Gospel Mission, Inc., a not-for-profit that runs a homeless shelter that houses men both overnight and long-term, filed an appeal with the board after the city’s inspection department sent a cease and desist letter to mission leadership in April saying they could no longer house short-term overnight guests, as they fall into a “transient use” category that is not permitted in the residentially zoned neighborhood.
New board member James Spanbauer suggested the board take more time to examine the situation before coming to a decision after more than an hour of legal arguments from attorneys representing the mission and the Memorial Park Neighborhood Block Club, whose members oppose the mission operating in their area, as well as comments from the mission’s leadership and block club members.
Spanbauer said that while the discussion and documents submitted during the public hearing helped to clarify some points, he still felt as though he need more time to “digest” all of the information.
“It’s really a decision on some verbiage we need to clarify,” he said. “I think, really when push comes to shove, it allows us to take the emotion of what happened tonight to out and look at the facts at hand so we can make a clear decision.”
The board voted unanimously to table the decision with the exception of member John Cooper, who abstained because of his membership with the block club.
Attorneys for the mission submitted the appeal on May 12, arguing the city had given permission for the overnight use and then ruled the shelter, which has been operating since 2010, did not comply with amendments to the zoning ordinances passed in 2012.
Attached to the appeal were a series of correspondences between the mission and the city.
The mission’s lawyer at the time, former city Corporation Counsel Ron Anton, who passed away this year, first wrote to the city in February of 2010 asking that the city verify that the mission’s intentions Ferry Avenue home would comply with city zoning ordinances.
The city responded with a letter signed by Code Enforcement Officer Pat Ciccarelli that does not explicitly state whether the proposed use at the time would comply with city zoning ordinances, but says that the building’s certificate of occupancy “indicates transient use” and that use defined as “hotel/motel” is not permitted.
The current use as a homeless shelter falls into the hotel and motel category and so must stop, though the mission is still allowed to run its meals and counseling programs, according to the cease and desist letter from Ciccarelli.
Michele Bergevin, an attorney representing the mission, argued that the letters, along with the allowance for some “transient” uses in the 2009 ordinance that the mission began operations under, should give her clients the right to continue running the homeless shelter.
“It was very clear in that correspondence that the intended use of that premises was for purposes of a transient housing Christian mission,” Bergevin said.
She also pointed to the cease and desist letter and challenged the city’s assertion that the mission’s homeless shelter usage falls under the “hotel/motel” category.
The shelter does not charge for rooms and drug tests it’s guests, she added.
“This is not a hotel or a motel,” Bergevin said. “Not even close. This is a residential facility for adult homeless people, adult homeless men, who are living transiently in the city of Niagara Falls.”
William Berard, an attorney representing the block club, argued that the city’s correspondences with the mission did not give the organization permission to operate.
“That was never a green light for transient use,” Berard said.
Berard told the board that while the mission does good work it also brings people with addiction problems into a neighborhood that is struggling to get back on its feet after many years of decline.
His clients are working hard to revive the neighborhood, but view the homeless shelter as an additional obstacle, he added.
“They are really the biggest stakeholders here, in terms of wanting things done right,” Berard said.
Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2252