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A zoning request for adding beds draws anger from some neighbors of the Holiday shelter.
Published Oct. 6, 2014

Bunk beds.

That's really what it boils down to: whether a social services agency can put 16 bunk beds in a beige building that houses immigrant children who typically stay about two weeks before being sent to relatives across the country.

But emotions that swirl around federal immigration policy have transformed what was strictly a zoning issue into a political tempest.

Neighbors near the shelter at Darlington and Chatlin roads in southwest Pasco County made it clear two months ago that they strongly oppose Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services' request to increase the number of beds to 32 at Chatlin House, which currently shelters 16 immigrant boys ages 8 to 18.

"This facility wants to capitalize on the federal government's underhanded way of pushing their immigration on the people of this community and on the people of the United States of America," Tom Kerr of Wesley Chapel told county officials at a public meeting.

Others worried about their kids having to attend school with the residents of Chatlin House and whether they were violent or diseased.

Gulf Coast signed a federal contract to serve as a shelter for immigrant kids who travel alone across the border to escape violence in their home countries. The shelter recently won a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to expand.

The matter came before the Pasco Planning Commission in August but was postponed. Planning commissioners will take up the issue at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at a meeting in New Port Richey. The planning group, made up of volunteers, will make a recommendation to Pasco County commissioners, who get the final say.

The county's staff is siding with Gulf Coast, recommending approval with a few conditions. What people might think of the feds' position on border security is irrelevant, they say.

"That's not a zoning issue," Carol Clarke, the county's zoning administrator, said of the political debate.

And both planning and county commissioners would be wise to avoid entangling themselves in the politics, assistant county attorney David Goldstein said.

"For it to be a legally defensible case, they should use the criteria in the county's land development code," he said.

County staffers cite nine provisions of the county's overall growth plan and say the request meets the criteria. Those include not causing traffic problems, having adequate drainage and utilities, enough landscaping or fencing and not lowering property values.

"While there is potential concern that the controversy over this proposal could bring some disruption to the neighborhood, the facility has been operating for many months with no problems," Clarke wrote in a memo to the planning commission. "Staff finds the expansion of the previously approved conditional use will not adversely affect the health, safety, or welfare of the surrounding community or area."

Gulf Coast says it is not asking to expand the 7,403-square-foot building or add staff. The boys have no history of crime and have been screened for illnesses. They will not attend local schools or drive vehicles. The shelter will be staffed around the clock..

Not all public comments have been negative. West Pasco activist Daniel Callaghan started a petition on that drew 18 supporters.

"I pray that if I ever had to be in such a position my child would be protected and cared for as I would do if I was capable," Maryellen Heckler of Holiday wrote. "I feel that what needs to be done is so obvious I am saddened by the need of a petition."