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Limits on shelters questioned at hearing

October 09, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown's proposed zoning amendments affecting homeless shelters appear to violate laws protecting residents and churches, a legal representative of the REACH Cold Weather Shelter said during a Hagerstown Planning Commission public hearing Wednesday that drew more than 100 people.

The attorney representing REACH, Robert E. Kuczynski, said the amendments appear to be the result of "an irrational prejudice against poor people," he said.

The commission probably will discuss the amendments at its next meeting, which is Oct. 29, Chairman Doug Wright said after the hearing.

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One of about 20 people who spoke against the proposed changes was Hugh Turley, a former Prince George's County resident, who said he stayed at the shelter last winter. Turley said he now is working and renting a place.

"Had it not been for REACH, I would never have made it," he said. "I would probably not be alive today. I would have died in that winter we had last year. It is a harsh point but very true."

The volunteers at REACH "helped me get my life back on track and their advice worked," he said. "To mandate what they can and can't do is just wrong."

The proposed amendments would require shelters to be open 24 hours a day and provide constant supervision, which REACH officials say they do not have the money, personnel or resources to do at this point.

None of the speakers Wednesday stated explicit support for the amendments, although a few said restrictions of some type on a shelter are needed.

Many in the audience held yellow signs stating, "Homeless people are our neighbors." The signs listed the Internet address for REACH at the bottom. REACH - Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless - had encouraged its supporters to attend the hearing.

Andra Stewart said he stayed at the REACH shelter about two years ago and received much help and encouragement.

"It is just a sad thing if you feel in your heart that doing this to eliminate the shelter is going to help something," he said.

The proposed zoning change would require a homeless shelter to be at least 1,500 feet from the Washington County Free Library's downtown facility and 1,000 feet from an existing homeless shelter.

REACH plans to move into a permanent site next to Christ's Reformed Church on West Franklin Street. While the site is more than 1,500 feet from the library, it is less than 1,000 feet from the Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission shelter.

Kuczynski questioned whether the city legally can place those restrictions on shelters.

"The distance to a library has absolutely nothing to do with the operation of a shelter," Kuczynski said.

Kuczynski and the Rev. Don Stevenson, pastor of Christ's Reformed Church, also questioned how the city legally can tell churches when and where it can provide homeless shelters.

At an Aug. 13 public hearing on the proposed amendments, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith, Councilwoman Penny May Nigh, downtown business leaders and others spoke in favor of the proposed zoning changes, some saying they would help keep the homeless away from downtown and might end problems at the library.

Representatives of REACH did not speak at that hearing because a city official, whose name has not been divulged, incorrectly told REACH the amendments would not affect its shelter.

The commission agreed to hold Wednesday's rare, second hearing on the proposal. The commission normally only has one public hearing per proposal.

The Hagerstown Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the council regarding the proposed amendments, but the decision will be up to the council. The council also would be required to hold a public hearing before voting on the issue.

Last week, a majority of council members said they would not vote on the proposal until they first meet with REACH officials.

During Wednesday's hearing, the executive director and legal representative of REACH suggested the city establish a task force - including officials from the city, REACH, area businesses and others - to address the text amendments.

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