Soup kitchen policy on the agenda for City Commission

Published: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 11:36 p.m.

Gainesville's restrictions on soup kitchens and shelters run by churches will be the topic of a special City Commission meeting tonight at 6.

The current law on the books, which the City Commission has suspended enforcement of since 2008, limits places of religious assembly located in single-family residential zoning districts to serving no more than 20 meals a day at soup kitchens and to housing no more than 20 people at a shelter. Religious institutions operating shelters or soup kitchens must be at least quarter-mile apart and at least 2,000 feet from the University of Florida campus.

Debate on potential changes to these regulations has stretched on for almost two years. The city's Community Development Committee - comprised of city commissioners Scherwin Henry, Jack Donovan and Thomas Hawkins - has recommended eliminating the 20-meal per day maximum and instead restricting the time soup kitchens at religious institutions may serve meals from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The committee recommended eliminating the 2,000-foot buffer between campus and soup kitchens and the requirement that they be at least quarter- mile apart, but it recommended requiring that the kitchens have a permit.

Instead of 20 people, shelters would be more limited under the recommendations to housing four families of up to four - or 16 people total - or four individuals. The committee could not reach a majority consensus on any recommendation regarding the requirement that shelters be at least quarter-mile apart.

Representatives of area churches have argued that their provision of services for the destitute and needy is part of their constitutionally protected right of Freedom of Religion and cannot be restricted unless the city shows a compelling public interest.

The specific regulations on the City Commission agenda tonight do not include the much-debated limit of 130 meals a day at the St. Francis House soup kitchen. The City Commission will discuss those at a meeting in February.

Qualifying week: Candidate qualifying for the March 16 Gainesville city elections begins at noon today and runs through noon Friday. The District 4 City Commission seat and the office of mayor will be on the ballot this year. Expect a crowded election based on the number of prospective candidates who have pre-filed, or filled out the required paperwork to begin raising campaign funds and making expenditures. Four candidates have pre-filed in each race. For mayor, they are: Monica Leadon Cooper, Craig Lowe, Don Marsh and Richard Selwach. In the District 4 race they are: Pat Fitzpatrick, Nathaniel Sperling, Randy Wells and Penny Wheat.

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