A homeless shelter won’t be built at 108 Sparta Road in North Wilkesboro’s Fairplains community due to action of the North Wilkesboro Zoning Board of Adjustment Thursday night.
The five-member board of adjustment denied the Catherine H. Barber Homeless Shelter board’s request for two zoning variances and a conditional use permit needed for the shelter to be built on the 1.6-acre Sparta Road (N.C. 18 North) site, which is next to Beulah Presbyterian Church.
The ruling came at the end of a 1½-hour-long hearing on the requests at the Wilkes County Schools’ Stone Center on Cherry Street. Eight people spoke in favor of granting the requests and three spoke against it, each testifying under oath.
The hearing was first scheduled at town hall but was postponed when the crowd present on the original date of July 11 exceeded fire code standards. About 100 people turned out on both dates.
Homeless shelter board member Carmen Decker said during the hearing before the ruling that the board would seek another site for a new shelter if denied regulatory approval to build at 108 Sparta Road. “We will remain the visible beacon of hope for homeless in Wilkes County,” he said.
On Friday, however, Elizabeth Huffman, the shelter board chairman, told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, “The board is undecided as to how we will proceed.”
Dan Huffman, also on the shelter board, testified Thursday that the proposed location is within the town’s highway business zoning district, which would allow the construction of a homeless shelter. He also said the board has received only one complaint about a homeless person causing damage to private property.
The shelter board requested variances from two requirements of an amendment to the town zoning ordinance, approved by the North Wilkesboro commissioners on May 8, 2018.
One requirement prohibits a new homeless shelter from being within 250 feet of property zoned or used for residential purposes and the other says a new homeless shelter must have access to a public sidewalk.
The 108 Sparta Road site is within 70 feet of a residence along Sparta Road, according to evidence presented at the hearing.
According to measurements by Lisa Casey, board of adjustment chairman, and Kelly Coffey, the town’s former interim planning director, corner of the shelter proposed on the site would be a little over 67 feet from a residence north of the shelter. These measurements were presented during the hearing.
Board of adjustment member Mike Staley said that is a significant variance from 250 feet, and that variances are typically granted only for differences amounting to a few feet. The shelter board requested a variance of 135 feet.
Regarding the variance from the public sidewalk requirement, Coffey testified that no public sidewalk exists in the vicinity of 108 Sparta Road, thus endangering public safety and welfare.
Board of adjustment member Freida Matthews made a motion to deny the shelter board’s request for a variance on the sidewalk requirement. Staley, who seconded the motion, Casey and Monica Hawn voted in favor of it. Board member Jane Wilborn abstained from voting, which is counted as a “yes” vote under procedural rules.
Wilborn, after stating that 108 Sparta Road “was as good as any” location for a homeless shelter—and generating a round of applause from the pro-shelter members of the audience—made a motion to approve the shelter board’s request for a proximity variance. Her motion died without a vote due to lack of a second.
Staley then made a motion to deny the shelter board’s appeal for proximity variance. That motion was seconded by Matthews. The motion passed 4-1, with Casey, Staley and Matthews voting for it and Hawn’s abstention counting as a yes. Wilborn voted against it.
Following the votes, a member of the audience asked if the members of the zoning board could be polled individually regarding their stance on the variance requests and conditional use permit application. Casey denied this request and the meeting was adjourned.
As a quasi-judicial entity, the zoning board of adjustment board is charged with basing its decisions on findings of fact and how those facts relate to compliance with the town’s zoning ordinance.
The board’s decisions can be appealed to the courts, but not to the North Wilkesboro commissioners. The appeal would need to be based on whether proper procedure was followed or if the decision was supported by the town’s zoning ordinance.
Casey prefaced the hearing by reading a prepared statement: “Tonight’s meeting is not to discuss or debate social issues and moral obligations associated with the homeless shelter, but rather to make a land-use decision regarding the parcel at 108 Sparta Road…. We will base this decision solely on the facts presented this evening.”
Despite Casey’s charge, several gave emotional testimony in favor of building the shelter. Tara Handy said the current shelter helped her mother regain her sobriety seven years ago. Chuck Elledge and David Anderson read Biblical passages and advocated taking care of the homeless population, especially veterans.
Brian Danner and Gregory Paul pointed out that homelessness is a nationwide problem and won’t go away in Wilkes simply by ignoring it.
Tim Byrd, whose family leases the current homeless shelter to the shelter board, Perry Carlton and Kenneth Coles all testified in opposition to the shelter being built at 108 Sparta Road.
Byrd said the homeless shelter amendments adopted by the town on May 8, 2018, “should be applied strictly, as written, since at no other time will they be more relevant or appropriate. They were written specifically for this circumstance.” He said the amendments were adopted only after the town was approached by the shelter board about the building of a new shelter.
Dan Huffman denied that the amendments were adopted solely because of the proposed shelter. “(The emails) might have mentioned Catherine H. Barber, but not one of our board members contacted (the town) before May (of 2018). We didn’t even start talking about this until after June or July of last year.”
Byrd also called for the new homeless shelter to be open 24/7, something Decker said Thursday isn’t possible under the shelter’s current budget. He said the homeless that are released from the shelter daily at 7 a.m. “are the people our community has been vilified and condemned for not want to have to deal with. As it turns out, the homeless shelter doesn’t want to deal with them either.”
Carlton and Coles, members of Beulah Presbyterian Church, said they are concerned by the potential negative impact of a new, larger shelter to their nearby church property. “We are not opposed to the homeless shelter; we’re opposed to the way that this is being proposed,” said Carlton. Coles added, “Regardless of where that shelter goes, Beulah is going to be there with an open door.”
The existing Catherine H. Barber Homeless Shelter is at 86 Sparta Road, about 600 feet south of 108 Sparta Road. It has been in operation there for 31 years and can provide temporary shelter for 11 people at a time.
The shelter board is trying to raise $500,000 for building a shelter with capacity for 40 homeless people. The proposed facility would have a learning center and full kitchen. About $130,000 has been raised for the new center, according to testimony Thursday night by shelter board members.