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Chancey Road Christian Church could be allowed to keep shelter

ZEPHYRHILLS — A homeless shelter ordered on Thursday by county officials to shut down was given a temporary reprieve on Friday.

The Chancey Road Christian Church has been operating a cold-weather shelter out of its Sunday school building for two years. This summer, it began allowing homeless people to stay overnight. But county zoning laws say the church needs a conditional use permit to operate such a residential facility in certain areas. It doesn't have that permit.

The county zoning department received a complaint about the shelter Thursday, and a code enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist letter to the church. It had to close the shelter until it secured a permit or face a $500-per-day fine.

But the county reversed course Friday.

"Technically staff was correct," said chief assistant County Administrator Michele Baker. "It's not the action we would have preferred to have been taken."

Baker said the county has no intention to shut the shelter down. Officials have decided the shelter can stay open on a temporary basis until county commissioners decide in March whether to grant the conditional use permit.

The news came as a relief to former Zephyrhills administrator Steve Spina, who had implored the county to keep the shelter open.

"I understand the concerns of the county and the neighbors," he said. "In the middle of winter, even it it's Florida winter, you need to give them time to work out their issues."

Clarke Hobby, a lawyer hired by the church to work on the zoning application, said he didn't have any comment other than saying he appreciates the county's efforts to "find a reasonable accommodation that balances the competing interests in this matter."

The Rev. Tim Mitchell, the church's senior pastor, did not return a message Friday.

The church has filed an application for a 130-bed shelter that would require people to be inside the building by 10 each night and leave by 8 the next morning. Guns, alcohol or drugs would be prohibited.

As a condition of the temporary reprieve, Baker said, the church must work to address neighborhood concerns about the shelter. Mitchell will meet with the county attorney's office Tuesday to discuss those concerns.

Several neighbors have complained about the church's guests hanging out in the neighborhood after the church closes. Eric Johnson, whose mother lives next door to the church, made Thursday's complaint.

"It brings in an element," said Johnson, who added the church is near Chester Taylor Elementary. "A large percentage are mentally ill and dependent on drugs. They need help. They don't need that help in the middle of a residential area."

A neighborhood meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the church. Officials must also go before the planning commission in February before the County Commission holds a final hearing March 6.

Baker said the church has been working with county officials for several months to secure the permit. "It's not like they haven't been attempting to come into compliance," she said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Chancey Road Christian Church could be allowed to keep shelter 12/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 30, 2011 6:23pm]
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