The Newton Planning and Zoning Board will perform a “big picture” review of the issue of appropriate zoning and permitting for homeless shelters.

If the Planning Commission deems there to be a need to amend existing zoning regulations, then they will send the City Commission a recommended ordinance for adoption. That process will include a review of what kinds of regulations other cities have developed and whether any of those might be appropriate for Newton.

Normally when the city planning and zoning board meets, few pay attention. Usually just a handful of property owners who want the zoning of their property changed. But in August the commission will be watched a little closer.
In August, the planning and zoning commission will be looking at a hot-button issue — the zoning rules of a homeless shelter.
The Harvey County Homeless Shelter, which is currently located in the 200 block of East Broadway in the old Axtell Hospital Building, is thinking about a move. The board which runs the facility has purchased an employ lot on South Pine.
But residential home owners in the neighborhood have voiced their displeasure, telling the city council they do not believe a residential area is the right place for the facility. The city has asked the Planning and Zoning Commission to take a look — but not at the specific location.
The commission is being ask to take a bigger picture approach — and discuss homeless shelters and their possible locations.
“They will look into whether there is some need and justification for singling out homeless shelters as being a kind of land use as to which there should be some special conditions or restrictions,” said Bob Myers, attorney for the city of Newton. “In other words, whether the location of such a facility in any or all of the otherwise appropriate zoning classifications should be conditioned upon the issuance of a special use permit.”
The property the shelter purchased — the former location of Bethel Deaconess Hospital — is currently zoned for professional and office district. Under the current zoning codes, the designation would allow for a homeless shelter to be located on the property.
However, property owners in the neighborhood have asked the city for a review.
“I understand all the concerns with this,” said Suzanne Loomis, director of public works for the city. “I understand the concerns of the neighborhood, and I understand those who are passionate to find a home for the shelter. Unfortunately, we have their rules set for us and can not deviate from that.”
No building permit has been applied for, which would Norman be what triggers the review of the future use of a property.
And, only a property owner can ask for, or initiate, the rezoning of a property.
However, the zoning board could recommend to the city commission an amendment of the city zoning codes — and the most likely amendment would be to require a special use permit for a homeless shelter.
A special use permit can carry with it restrictions of how close the facility is to a church, school or residential property.
“If a special use permit requirement is thought to be appropriate, they are to look into what kinds of issues should be examined in the process of considering whether
to issue such a permit, and what kinds of conditions or requirements should be considered in the permitting of such a use,” Myers said.
However, at this time, no such permit is required. Depending on the design of a facility, a homeless shelter could possibly be approved in a muli-family district (R-3 zoning designation), professional office district (P-O designation) or business district (C-3).
As a permitted use under those designations, there are no special limitations above what is already in the code.
“If they came in today and wanted to build there and wanted a permit, we would issue it,” Loomis said. “There is nothing we could do legally.”
There are a number of sticky wickets in the world of zoning, and defining a special use to require a permit is anything but easy. Simply requiring a special use permit because a land use may not be popular with the neighbors can open up legal issues.
“The courts have repeatedly emphasized that zoning decisions, such as decisions on special use permit applications, are not popularity contests,” Myers said.
“Rather, those decisions have to be confined to specified criteria, and they have to be reasonable and justified based upon facts properly presented through a public hearing process.”