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Concerns raised about Martinsburg rescue mission's facility

February 07, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Martinsburg Union Rescue Mission's proposal to build a new 98-bed shelter to house more homeless men has prompted questions about safety conditions at the existing facility and whether it complies with state fire code.

In a hearing Tuesday night held by the city's Board of Zoning Appeals about the shelter expansion project, Danny Custer, an administrator for the rescue mission at 602 W. King St., told board members that the facility regularly was inspected and had passed inspections.

Custer also said he believed the legal occupancy of the shelter was 50 people, but acknowledged that as many as 80 had been provided shelter there at one time.

Martinsburg Fire Department Chief Paul Bragg said Wednesday that fire code inspectors on his staff had not inspected the rescue mission's facilities for several years.

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"I can tell you, it's been a while since we've done inspections there," Bragg said. "We've had no complaints."

"If they are raising those issues themselves, then we ought to take a look at it," Bragg said.

Though buoyed by a number of endorsements by church leaders and a petition of support bearing 750 signatures, the zoning appeals board denied the Christian-based organization's appeal for zoning variances needed to spur the $3.4 million project on a 3-2 vote.

The rescue mission had asked for exceptions to the city's zoning regulations, including parking rules and setbacks from property lines in order to build a 20,000-square-foot facility along the north side of the 600 block of West King Street.

Voting for the project were Bill Blackburn and Fay Falcone, while voting against were board chairman Lane McIntosh, Matthew Coffey and Lisa Dall'Olio.

After hearing from Custer that capacity had been exceeded at the existing facility, Dall'Olio concluded the rescue mission did not give her reason to believe they would comply with the proposed bed limit.

"Legal occupancy has been exceeded and I think precedence has been set," said Dall'Olio, who asked about the current facility's fire code compliance.

Without a full complement of fire code enforcement staff, Bragg said inspections are reserved for new construction and when his department receives complaints, or if a property's use or ownership changes.

Echoing the sentiment of many residents who voiced concerns about the project, board members said the rescue mission's request to only provide 10 parking spaces instead of the 50 spaces required by zoning rules, was not enough. Board members were less concerned about setbacks and other building-related exception requests.

Though Coffey and other board members agreed that a new shelter was needed, he said the rescue mission's request for 98 beds seemed to be going too far.

"I think it needs to go back to the drawing board," Coffey said.

Rescue mission board member Terry Lindsay on Wednesday said he didn't know whether the organization would appeal the decision to circuit court or try to resubmit new plans to the city for the long-standing project, which was announced in 2005.

Lindsay said the board's long-range planning committee would meet later this month to try to assess "where we go from here." They had hoped to break ground later this year and have the facility built by 2010, the mission's 50th year in Martinsburg, Lindsay said after the hearing Tuesday. He said the mission had raised about $1.7 million for the new facility, about half of the expected cost.

"We'll just have to see," Lindsay said.

In addition to fire code compliance, City Planning Department Director Michael M. Covell said Wednesday that the rescue mission's acknowledgment of having residents who have lived at the shelter for 10 or 15 years likely will be investigated further.

As defined last year in amendments made to city code, the length of stay at an emergency shelter in Martinsburg is limited to six consecutive weeks, and individuals are limited to 24 months in transitional housing.

Covell said the city likely will try to make some determination as to whether the presence of the longtime residents at the shelter is a "grandfather" issue.

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