At a special work session Tuesday evening, Newton City Commissioners talked about two zoning ordinances — including one dealing with homeless shelters, a topic that has generated considerable discussion and debate in the community throughout the past year.
Commissioners looked at draft versions of the zoning ordinances: one about regulations for the siting of telecommunications towers and antennas, and one about regulations for the siting of group residence facilities (which would include homeless shelters).
“Our purpose today is to get you up to speed on these issues and these ordinances that are before you and to prepare you for your regular meeting to receive some public input," said City Attorney Bob Myers.
The latter ordinance 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.
“We’ve had quite a healthy discussion and quite a bit of public input on this," Myers said of the issue.
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. That moratorium expires May 31.
Assistant City Attorney Chris Towle previously reported to the Kansan that 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.
According to the ordinance, a general group residence (occupancy of more than 15 people) would need a special use permit to operate in any residential district; commercial districts that are part of neighborhoods; and professional office zones.
A special use permit application would include an overall site plan; interior floor plan; and facility management plan, which could include rules of conduct for guests, staffing requirements, scheduled hours of operation, protocol for communicating with neighbors and law enforcement, a response plan for emergencies, and a loitering control plan.
“We have to know what it is we’re planning to do and how it will impact the surrounding area," Myers said.
“At the end of the day, you all have to make a judgment call, based on the evidence that is collected throughout the process," Tim Johnson, assistant city manager, added.
Once commissioners have voted for or against the ordinance, or changed it, then they can address the specific issue of the Harvey County Homeless Shelter.
Myers told commissioners denial of a permit for a facility would be a rare event, and typically a permit is granted subject to conditions or restrictions.
“We presume we’re going to make it work," he said.
He said the city needs to make sure it is protecting the housing rights of the entire population, and if it is perceived the community is trying to "zone out" certain kinds of people, the courts will not respond favorably. Myers said an effort should be made to try to accommodate all segments of society.
“We still as a nation believe that everyone deserves a safe and healthy place in which to live," he said.
Commissioner Leroy Koehn said he would like to make this a win-win situation for all those involved and find a solution that is acceptable for everyone.
Myers praised community members for their involvement in the issue and for being willing to work together.
“I think that the citizens on various sides of this issue have just conducted themselves in just an outstanding fashion," he said. "… People have consistently been respectful and handled themselves well on this."
Commissioner Glen Davis also thanked the planning commission for the time they spent researching the issue.
“I appreciate all the trouble and the work that the planning commission went through doing this," he said.
Commissioners also learned about the city's proposed ordinance for telecommunications towers and antennas.
City Attorney Bob Myers said that, like the group residence ordinance, the goal of this ordinance is to find balance.
“Everyone wants good cell coverage, but you don’t necessarily want the tower next door to you," he said.
“We want to minimize the negative impact associated with towers and antennas in the community,” echoed Assistant City Attorney Chris Towle.
Towle reported the ordinance covers issues such as allowing safety signage and warning signs associated with the tower, but no advertising; application fees at a fair rate for the city and the applicant; and encouraging co-location, which involves having multiple users at one tower instead of several separate towers.