Although a new ordinance presented to the Newton City Commission won't bring an end to the homeless shelter debate, local officials say it is a step forward in that process.
Commissioners have been asked to review an ordinance that establishes what a "group residence," such as a homeless shelter, is, and how such residences will be authorized to operate in the community. The local homeless shelter currently is seeking to rebuild in a residential neighborhood, a move that has been met with both support and concern from different groups.
According to Assistant City Attorney Chris Towle, if the ordinance is approved, the city can choose to allow a group residence to operate with a special use permit (which could include a management plan that addresses security for the homeless shelter); to operate without the use of a permit; or to not operate at all.
"It's going to be case by case," Towle said. "It really depends on the application."
The Harvey County Homeless Shelter is planning to construct a new facility at the site of the old Bethel Hospital. The proposed site for the new shelter is near a residential neighborhood, and residents of the neighborhood have voiced some concerns about the project.
Property owners have said they are concerned it might not be safe to place the shelter in an area with children and families and said they feared there could be an increase in crime in the neighborhood.
Homeless shelter board members have said they have a legal right to build and operate a shelter at the site. The shelter already has spent $100,000 of donor money to purchase the vacant lot.
Earlier this year, commissioners voted to extend a moratorium on the construction of new shelter facilities until the Newton/North Newton Area Planning Commission could finish working on recommendations.
City Attorney Bob Myers recommended commissioners now conduct a more informal work session to discuss what the Planning Commission has developed, then make a formal decision at a regular City Commission meeting and allow additional public comment before making a final determination about the issue.
“Talk about what kind of process you want to follow, so you’ll be in a position where you can make an ultimate decision," he said.
Towle said once commissioners have voted for or against the ordinance, or changed it, then they could address the specific issue of the Harvey County Homeless Shelter at a future meeting.