Homelessness efforts avoid zoning rules

City not bound by laws when opening shelters

August 17, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

As part of its campaign to combat homelessness, Baltimore has opened shelters in parts of the city where private facilities would not be permitted without City Council approval and greater public notice, officials acknowledge.

The city is not bound by its own zoning code, several experts agree, but the public notice requirements included in the city's zoning law could have addressed what has emerged as the primary concern raised by neighborhoods hosting city shelters: the last-minute notice received before the facilities were opened.

Though neighborhood leaders living near the shelters give the city high marks for mitigating the facilities' impact, many have said they felt blindsided by the process because they did not hear from the city until days before the shelters opened. "We weren't against the homeless coming to Edmondson High School," said David Smallwood, a member of the Uplands Community Association who ran an unsuccessful campaign for City Council last year. "It's just that we wanted to be a part of the decision-making process. It's just that people wanted their questions answered."

Baltimore has opened four temporary homeless shelters since last year, and two are still in operation, one in Edmondson Heights and another in Butchers Hill.

Dixon apologized this month to residents and parents for the short notice the city provided before it opened a shelter at Edmondson High School on July 1. Dixon said it took longer than expected to negotiate with the city school system.

"It wasn't done intentionally," Dixon said at the time. "But we all make mistakes."

Zoning rules permit homeless shelters only in limited areas and require the City Council to approve an ordinance before they open, a process that automatically triggers hearings and extensive public notice requirements, including posting of the property.

If a nonprofit group opens a shelter it must adhere to those rules.

But the city is using two arguments to sidestep the requirements. Officials say the city housing commissioner may declare an emergency and waive portions of the law. But that provision is in the building code, not the zoning code, and it is not clear whether it applies.

The city also points to a 1990 Court of Appeals decision that found that local governments are not necessarily bound by their own zoning codes. In that case, a neighbor sued Baltimore County after it built a 620-foot tower without zoning approval.

"It's a very close and difficult question," said City Solicitor George Nilson. "I am perfectly happy to defend that position if and when it's raised."

John C. Murphy, the attorney who represented the landowner in the Baltimore County case, said that while it is true that in many instances local governments do not have to adhere to their own zoning rules, nothing stops them from doing so if they chose.

"It's sort of an anachronism. It goes back to the old ages, sovereign immunity, the king can do no wrong," Murphy said of the rule. "A lot of local governments have subjected themselves to their own zoning regulations."

If the city were to follow the zoning code, it could run into the same problem it is facing regarding other types of home-based facilities. City Council members are loath to sponsor or vote for politically unpopular variances - effectively making it difficult to open any shelter in the city.

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who has had several of the temporary shelters in his East Baltimore district, said he thinks the facilities should be spread around the city.

"No one district should bear the burden of the entire city," Young said.

Baltimore intends to build a permanent shelter by 2010 on the Fallsway. In the meantime, it has opened the shelters to keep people housed and also to connect them with services and permanent housing. Combined, the shelters can sleep 150.

Homeless people seeking shelter board buses under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown about 7 o'clock nightly. As the homeless gather, volunteers pass out sack dinners.

In the morning, shelter residents take buses back to the drop-off site, and many go to eat breakfast at Our Daily Bread, which is operated by Catholic Charities.

In almost every case, neighborhood leaders said they have been surprised by the city's effort to mitigate the impact of the shelters. Aisha Peterson, president of an Albemarle Square homeowner's association, described the shelter as a positive experience that "restored my faith in the city."

"I felt that the city did a reasonably good job in living up to their end of the bargain," Peterson said, adding that the city provided additional security in the area and did not keep the facility open any longer than promised.

Barry Glassman, president of the Butchers Hill Association, agreed.

"Basically, the city has done all that they promised," Glassman said of the facility, which is located in a recreation center on Fayette Street. "Butchers Hill has been pleasantly surprised at the manner at which Baltimore City has adhered to its promises."

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