Regulations on churches that help homeless will stay

City will keep limits on religious institutions that help the needy


Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:42 p.m.

Many of the existing but unenforced Gainesville regulations on churches in residential areas that serve meals to or shelter the needy and homeless would stay in place under a plan that the City Commission pushed ahead at the end of Monday evening's more than five hour meeting.

Requirements that churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions that operate shelters or soup kitchens in single-family residential zoning districts be at least a quarter-mile apart and at least 2,000 feet from the University of Florida campus would remain. The city code's current limit that no more than 20 people stay at shelters run by these institutions would also stay in place.

Under the plan, city commissioners would relax the limit on the number of meals these institutions could serve from 20 in a 24-hour period to up to 50, as long as the building has capacity for that many people. The proposed hours for meal service would be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The decision to move forward with these proposed regulations passed 5-1, with Commissioner Thomas Hawkins in dissent and Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan leaving shortly before the vote in order to return a rental car.

Hawkins had spoken in support of not relaxing the meal limits for churches in these residentially zoned areas but having no limits on churches in other zoning districts.

Under city procedures for changes to the land use code, a petition on the regulations now needs to go through city planning staff, then to the city's advisory Plan Board and then to the City Commission for a vote. Then, the City Commission would still have to adopt an ordinance on the regulations.

Commissioners Jeanna Mastrodicasa and Craig Lowe said during the meeting that the 2,000-foot buffer around UF protected neighborhoods near the school.

St. Augustine Catholic Church lies within that buffer area and therefore would not be allowed to legally operate a soup kitchen or shelter under the policy. The Rev. John Gillespie of St. Augustine said city commissioners questioned why congregations serving the homeless do not work together more closely but also approve restrictions that keep some churches from feeding and sheltering the homeless and needy.

"We can't if we're here. We can't if we're there," Gillespie said. "In this zone, we can't. If we're too close to someone else who has decided to help, we can't."

Churches in single-family residential districts would also need a permit from the City Manager's Office to operate a shelter or soup kitchen. That requirement is currently in place but has not been enforced.

The city's regulations on churches and social service agencies that shelter and feed the homeless have been a source of debate and conflict for years.

Monday evening's meeting was limited to places of religious assembly in single-family residential zoning districts and did not include the limit of 130 meals in a 24-hour period the city has imposed on the St. Francis House shelter south of downtown.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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