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Monday, April 22, 2024

Proposed ordinance regulates services for homeless

City officials moved one step closer Tuesday to complying with a federal law that regulates churches in residential neighborhoods.

After receiving a notification from the Federal Justice Department that Gainesville was not in compliance with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the city drafted a new ordinance by the same name in early 2008.

But in addition to resolving the violations, the RLUIPA ordinance has also spurred protest from local churches by adding regulations.

About 75 people voiced concerns about the ordinance at a special city commission meeting Feb. 4.

While the ordinance pertains to churches, it also affects neighborhood residents and the homeless.

Commissioners voted to send it back to the Community Development Committee for further discussion.

If the city does not comply with the federal law in a reasonable amount of time, it could face government fines, said Commissioner Scherwin Henry, the committee's chairman.

Gainesville currently has 68 churches in residential neighborhoods.

The codes attempt to balance the rights of churches with the rights of neighborhood residents, Henry said.

"It's important that anyone following this knows that this is not any vendetta against churches," he said.

The only issue resolved at the meeting Tuesday was the ordinance's lot-size requirement.

The committee voted to decrease it slightly, requiring at least one acre for churches with a capacity of up to 100 people and another half acre for each additional 50 people.

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The committee also discussed regulations for churches that provide overnight shelter, but did not come to a decision.

The ordinance as currently written would restrict operating hours from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. for church shelters, but the committee considered removing operating hours completely.

Commissioner Jack Donovan also suggested cutting back the ordinance's 20-person maximum for how many homeless people a church can shelter overnight.

"I would say the number 20 is a very big number to impose on a neighborhood," Donovan said.

The committee discussed giving churches the right to shelter up to three families or three individuals and the privilege to shelter up to 15 with a special use permit.

The committee will hold a special meeting March 6 at 6 p.m. to come to a final decision for shelter regulations and to discuss compatibility, another issue they did not have time to talk about.

Compatibility requires neighborhood churches' noise levels, lighting and traffic to be in keeping with the homes that surround them.

City officials intend to have the proposal drafted by March 10 so the city commission can vote on it at their meeting March 24.

Discussion of the ordinance has also brought up complaints about existing regulations for churches that serve food to the homeless. Churches in residential neighborhoods may not serve food to the homeless if they are within a quarter mile of each other or 2,000 feet from the UF campus. They are also prohibited from serving more than 20 meals per day or breaking health or safety codes.

The committee decided to discuss at Tuesday's meeting only RLUIPA concerns and look into the other issues at a later date.

Jim Wright, executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, said these churches have often acted outside the city's regulations.

"The main change now is city staff is encouraging the enforcement of these rules," Wright said.

But the ordinances don't just affect churches.

"The primary burden is felt by people that are hungry," he said.

Harry Behrens, who stood in line for breakfast at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church Sunday morning, said he blamed tightening restrictions on homeless people who panhandle or shout at passersby.

"If you got a barrel of apples and there's some rotten ones, it's going to screw the whole thing up," Behrens said.

Frankie Sumter, a religious leader at Holy Trinity, said the breakfast has fed 75 to 80 people every Sunday for the past 18 years.

Larry Reimer, a minister at the United Church of Gainesville, said he's never had a problem with neighborhood complaints.

"Nothing of what we do to serve the homeless impacts the neighborhood in any negative way," Reimer said.

But some churches have encountered problems with their neighbors, Commissioner Jack Donovan said at the meeting, citing Fire of God Ministries and Trinity United Methodist Church.

Reimer said he thought the commission would eventually come to an agreement that would benefit everyone.

If not, he said, his church would simply refuse to comply.

"The churches will not stop doing this," he said. "It's who we are."

Wright said limiting churches that feed the homeless is a First Amendment issue.

"We consider feeding the hungry to be practicing faith," he said.

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