Bellingham’s Homeless Drop-In Center wins legal decision

The Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center on West Holly Street in Bellingham has been operating as a temporary, 24/7 low-barrier center since October 2016.
The Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center on West Holly Street in Bellingham has been operating as a temporary, 24/7 low-barrier center since October 2016. The Bellingham Herald file

The owner of a commercial office building near the Drop-In Center has lost his appeal of the city of Bellingham’s decision to allow the center to be turned into an overnight and year-round emergency shelter for the homeless.

That means the Drop-In Center will be able to continue operating as an emergency shelter until May 2022, the date approved by the city. It is allowed to have a maximum of 80 men there overnight.

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.

On Friday, Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice ruled against Belsher and sided with the city.

Belsher’s building is at 1111 W. Holly St. The Drop-In Center is at 1013 W. Holly St.

Since October 2016, Lighthouse Mission Ministries has been operating a low-barrier shelter that’s open year-round and 24 hours a day at the Drop-In Center.

Low-barrier, or easy access 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.

Belsher had stated, in the appeal ruling, that the Drop-In Center cost him tenants and tens of thousands of dollars, including $24,000 for fencing. Its opening brought problems that included finding human feces, broken liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia as well as people passed out in the elevator or sleeping in the landscaping.

Neighboring business and property owners confirmed Belsher’s concerns, according to the appeal.

The city’s zoning interpretation is correct, Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham, has said.

Bellingham codes don’t specifically address drop-in centers or shelters, Sepler has said, so the city considered other uses that were believed to have similar impact and intensity.

Hotels, motels, restaurants and movie theaters are similar in that they’re places with high traffic and places where people congregate, Sepler told The Bellingham Herald previously.

Drop-in centers and low-barriers shelters also are not prohibited in the Old Town District — the 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 cases, industrial uses, Sepler has said.

As for criminal activity, Bellingham Police Chief David Doll said that “from review of the reports, it was not possible to determine whether the person committing the crimes were associated with the Drop-In Center,” according to his testimony in the Hearing Examiner’s ruling.

In her ruling, Rice wrote, in part: “The record submitted does not prove that the litter and vandalism complained of are caused by low-barrier guests or are the result of 80 people sleeping inside instead of camping outdoors in the city.”

She sided with the city on that issue as well as Sepler’s interpretation of the zoning.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.