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Panel recommends closing Zephyrhills homeless shelter

DADE CITY — An advisory panel on Wednesday said east Pasco's only homeless shelter should close, saying the facility is a poor fit for the surrounding Zephyrhills neighborhood.

The Chancey Road Christian Church has been running a daily shelter since last summer, housing roughly 35 to 40 people each night. But it opened without a necessary permit — and it needs that permit now to continue operating.

At a four-hour meeting of the county Planning Commission, several neighbors passionately described times when homeless people trespassed on their property and generally made them feel less safe.

Carrie Barnard, a neighbor on Lanier Road, described an incident in which she came out of her house because she thought she heard a dog. She found a man standing at a fence, "growling and barking at us."

"I don't think any one of you would want to have some of these problems happening in your neighborhood," said her mother-in-law, Grace Barnard, who lives next door.

"In my opinion, there are some mentally imbalanced residents. I was there when that person came to the fence and was barking at us. It was scary."

County zoning staffers recommended closing the shelter after one year, to allow the church to wind down operations. In the meantime, the proposal would limit residents to 35 and would prohibit the church from accepting any new people.

A divided Planning Commission rejected that offer 5-4. Moments later, it voted 6-3 to recommend closing the shelter immediately.

The panel's recommendation is non-binding, and county commissioners will have the final decision. They are scheduled to consider the issue at an April 11 meeting in Dade City.

"We are introducing a problem into an existing neighborhood from another area," said Planning Commission member Dennis Smith. "I'm uncomfortable with allowing this to continue for another year. It's an inappropriate location."

Citing a personal hardship that nearly forced him from his home, Planning Commission member Jon Moody chided neighbors for a "complete lack of understanding."

"I also say shame on all of you," he said. "Don't just assume because someone's homeless that they're a criminal."

But Moody also voted to close the shelter because it operated for so long without the proper zoning. "You knew what you were doing was against the rules," he said.

County zoning laws say the church at 34921 Chancey Road needs a conditional-use permit to operate such a residential facility in certain areas. After several complaints, a code enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist order to the church in December, but the county quickly backtracked.

Officials agreed that the shelter can remain open temporarily until an April hearing before the County Commission, as long as church leaders worked to address concerns of neighbors.

The church argues it has done just that.

The original plan for a 120-bed shelter was cut to 50 beds. Guns, alcohol or drugs would be prohibited. The church also conducts background checks.

All residents would have to arrive by 10 p.m. and leave by 8 a.m. Most people leaving in the morning would board a van headed for Career Connections 6 miles away on Gall Boulevard.

"There's no reasonable way you can say we're going to adversely affect the neighborhood," said Clarke Hobby, a lawyer for the church. "I believe the county has a moral obligation on this issue."

Several pastors spoke in favor of the project, as did Zephyrhills officials.

"These are kind of the elite of the homeless," said City Council member Jodi Wilkeson, noting the residents agree to be part of a year-long program to find work and turn their lives around. "They are transitioning from being in a very bad place to being in a wonderful place."

Panel recommends closing Zephyrhills homeless shelter 03/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 8:46pm]
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