Way cleared for Gaddy homeless shelter

January 25, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Bea Gaddy is now on track to get the zoning needed to run her West Baltimore homeless shelter. But that doesn't change a quirk in the city's zoning law -- one that imposes a more rigorous review on shelters than it does on atomic reactors.

Last night, City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes introduced zoning legislation for Ms. Gaddy's shelter. This has been the process in Baltimore for more than 30 years, with homeless shelters subjected to a case-by-case legislative approval that few other establishments face.

Zoning for shelters became an issue last week when city officials, alarmed by numerous housing code violations at Ms. Gaddy's shelter, cited her lack of an occupancy permit and tried to close it. But she stood her ground and won the time to make repairs.

That confrontation pointed up what homeless advocates claim is a flawed and possibly unconstitutional zoning ordinance. Whether a district is zoned for residential, business or industrial use, a homeless shelter always needs City Council approval. Only a few other establishments, such as drug treatment centers and corrections facilities, face this hurdle in every district.

"The NIMBY attitude -- Not in My Backyard -- is not unusual," said Peter Sabonis, legal director for the Homeless Persons Representation Project. "What's unusual is that Baltimore is one of the few cities in the nation that has its NIMBY policy spelled out in the law."

He contends the law violates federal anti-discrimination housing law, because city shelter residents are overwhelmingly black and disabled. The ordinance's logic appears particularly strained, he said, in a district where fraternity houses are automatically allowed, but homeless shelters still need council approval.

City Zoning Administrator David C. Tanner pointed out that shelters do not require zoning variances, but are considered "legislative conditional" uses, not wholly out of character for some districts. "The presumption is that the use will be approved unless someone can prove they don't meet the [community] standards," he said.

Consider the case of District M-2, home to Ms. Gaddy's shelter, a former food processing plant on the 2400 block of W. Baltimore St. Zoned for industry, the district's permitted uses -- which require no zoning board approval -- include aircraft manufacturing, the storage of flammable liquids, stone-cutting, tire retreading and union halls.

Other uses -- those requiring a Zoning Board hearing -- include atomic reactors, hotels and radar installation.

Finally, there are uses that require City Council action. Those include drug rehabilitation facilities and correctional facilities.

(Until Saturday, homeless shelters were prohibited in the industrial district. That changed after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signed into law a zoning ordinance amendment, clearing the way for Ms. Gaddy to seek the council's permission for the shelter.)

Zoning and homeless shelters are part of a long-running battle in Baltimore, dating back to the late 1950s when the zoning board attempted to close two halfway houses for alcoholics, known as Flynn Christian Fellowship Homes.

After three years of controversy, the City Council approved a bill that gave its members the right to decide where such shelters should go. At the time, the compromise was considered a victory, Mr. Sabonis said.

But in recent years, the change has made it difficult for homeless advocates to attack the law. City council members whose constituents don't want shelters simply don't introduce legislation, Mr. Sabonis said, so it never becomes an issue. The Zoning Board's decisions could be challenged in court, but the City Council's inaction cannot, Mr. Sabonis said. "The irony is, it was set up this way to make it easier to put these homes in," he said.

"The problem now is that everything is done behind the scenes. . . . How can you go to court to review the nonactions of a legislator?"

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