Seymour Plan Commission denies request for land use variance for homeless shelter

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Editor’s note: This report is coverage of the Seymour Plan Commission meeting, which happened Monday evening and is featured in Wednesday’s print edition. The Board of Zoning Appeals, which met Tuesday, approved a land use variance during the meeting. Read the latest on the BZA decision, which will be featured in Thursday’s print edition, here.   

A proposed homeless shelter in Seymour has hit a snag in moving forward.

The Seymour Plan Commission voted 6-3 in a special meeting Monday to deny a request from local businessman Andy Royalty for a land use variance to operate the shelter in a vacant building at 326 Dupont Drive in a commercial area on the city’s east side.

Those voting against the request were commissioners Rick Schleibaum, Mark Hays, Dave Eggers, Jeri Wells, Don Myers Jr. and John Reinhart. Those in favor were commissioners Gary Colglazier, Don Bruce and Bernie Hauersperger.

Commissioners Mike Jordan and Danny Sloan did not attend the meeting. No one from the public spoke in opposition of the project.

Royalty owns both the 1.7-acre property and the 5,000-square-foot spec building and is working with members of Jackson County Toolbox, a new nonprofit organization that formed in the spring to help end homelessness and poverty in the community.

Karen Browning, who is a founding member of the Jackson County Toolbox along with director of Double Down Outreach and Waymaker Ministries, said she and all those working to address the issue were disappointed by the vote.

They felt some of the plan commission members couldn’t get past prejudices against the homeless.

“It was hard hearing questions that were obviously slanted with the opinion that homeless people are less than,” Browning said. “It was hard hearing no when we know every delay can lead to someone falling further down the hole or even to their death.”

The group had hoped to have the full-time emergency shelter open sometime in November before cold weather sets in.

Attorney Jeff Lorenzo, who represented Royalty, said the shelter will be more than a place for people to sleep. It also will provide navigational services, workforce training and life skills education to defeat the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

“These people want to be reintegrated into productive members of society,” Lorenzo said.

Commissioner Mark Hays said he isn’t against helping the homeless but believes the group should have gone about their request differently.

“They got the cart before the horse,” Hays said. “They should have gone before city council to get the proper zoning first.”

The property’s present zoning classification is C-3 or commercial highway business. Currently, there is no zoning classification in Seymour that allows for a homeless shelter. Hays said the group needs to request the council change the city’s master plan to create such a zoning.

Commission President Don Myers Jr. agreed. He said he didn’t want to pass anything without a proper zoning category in place.

“Changing the master plan would be the best way,” Myers Jr. said. “We need to do it according to proper procedures. I commend them for what they are doing, though.”

The project, which is estimated to cost $1 million to build and $500,000 to $600,000 a year to operate, would be completed in three phases and will be privately funded through donations making up the largest endowment ever at the Community Foundation of Jackson County.

Instead of dormitory-style cots in one big open area, the building would be converted into apartment-style units with separate bathrooms to house nearly 50 men and women, families and runaway teens in separate areas. There also would be a commercial kitchen and laundry service, play area for children and kennels for pets.

It’s estimated the shelter will need four full-time employees and three part-time workers along with volunteers, but those numbers likely will increase, organizers said.

The second phase would double the capacity to nearly 100 people, and the third phase would add a manufacturing workshop to retrain people or teach them new skills. It will help fill a need for more employees at local businesses, Royalty said.

Myers Jr. asked what happens when people don’t want to work and prefer to panhandle. He compared the shelter to a halfway house.

Browning said it takes “tough love and time” to reach people, but it’s important not to give up on them.

The shelter’s focus will be on helping Jackson County residents in crisis.

Browning said obstacles for the homeless include being underemployed at jobs that pay minimum wage, generational poverty, a severe shortage of affordable permanent housing in Seymour and an inability to get work or housing because of past criminal records and mental illness.

“We want to move people in crisis to a more stable environment,” Browning said.

“People aren’t going to live there forever. The goal is to get them on their feet,” Lorenzo added.

John Cord, deacon at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Seymour and another founding member of the Jackson County Toolbox, said the length of stay will vary but likely will be 30 to 40 days.

Commissioner Dave Eggers said he is concerned with people who are turned away from the shelter.

“Do we have a plan for that?” he asked.

Those who are not from Jackson County or who do not have family here will be relocated, Cord said.

The problem of homelessness in Jackson County is not just 10 or 20 people, Cord added.

“It’s hundreds of people, including children,” he said.

Some of those people live in motels on the east side of Interstate 65, some live in their cars in parking lots or storage facilities, some live in tents and some couch surf, he added.

Cord said last winter’s Jackson County Cold Night Out Shelter, which housed the homeless in area churches, was an eye-opener to the problem but was not a sustainable way to help.

“It was not helping them move on with their lives,” he said. “This is a community issue. It’s not going to go away, and we can’t turn a blind eye to it.”

Commissioner Jeri Wells said she was concerned with how violent and sexual offenders would be handled.

Cord said background checks would be done on every person who walks through the doors, and those with violent or sexual offenses would be separated.

Building Commissioner Jeremy Gray said Royalty and the Jackson County Toolbox did everything properly in applying for the land use variance, and it wasn’t their fault the city has not addressed zoning for homeless shelters in the past.

The matter was scheduled to go before the Seymour Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday night.

Browning said she was praying the vote would be different and the BZA would have “open hearts and open minds and are willing to listen without preconceived notions.”

She also hoped more people would attend the meeting to show their support.

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