The owner of a commercial office building near the Drop-In Center is appealing a City of Bellingham decision that allowed the center to be turned into an overnight and year-round emergency shelter for the homeless.
Brent Belsher of Conteslin LLC filed the appeal March 12 with the Office of the Hearing Examiner, arguing that the city's interpretation of zoning was incorrect and that the shelter wasn't allowed in an area that was zoned commercial.
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Since October 2016, Lighthouse Mission Ministries has been operating a low-barrier shelter that’s open year-round and 24 hours a day for 80 men at the Drop-In Center.
The center can accommodate up to 120.
The shelter site is temporary while the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County continue efforts to find a permanent location.
Low-barrier shelters have minimum requirements for entry, so people aren’t tested for drug or alcohol use before being allowed in, although they can’t drink or use drugs once inside.
The goal is to get people through the door, give staff a chance to connect with them and build trust so those who are homeless are willing to get services.
The Drop-In Center is costing Belsher thousands of dollars, his attorney, Philip Serka, wrote in the appeal.
"The low-barrier shelter generates significant impacts that affect the appellant," Serka stated. "There is increased frequency of trespasses, damage and noise, frequency of calls to the site by the fire department and police, impacting appellant’s existing businesses.
"Since its location, the appellant has expended over $24,000 for fencing and to keep trespassers from entering his parking facility," Serka continued.
He argued it should be in an industrial zone.
The city's interpretation is correct, responded Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham.
Bellingham codes don't specifically address drop-in centers or shelters, Sepler said, so the city considered other uses that were believed to have similar impact and intensity.
"Our codes were written over time and not everything was anticipated," Sepler said.
Hotels, motels, restaurants and movie theaters are similar in that they're places with high traffic and where people congregate, Sepler said.
"The purpose of commercial zoning is to allow a wide variety of business and services uses to the general public," Sepler wrote in his interpretation of the zoning.
Drop-in centers and low-barriers shelters also are not prohibited in the Old Town District — location of the current temporary shelter — which also is the city's first urban village. The area is meant to have a number of uses, including residential, personal services, retail, offices and, in some case,s industrial uses, Sepler wrote.
A hearing date is expected to be set during a meeting in April.