Vote on Rescue Mission expansion postponed

May. 27, 2014 @ 08:23 PM

The founders of the Durham Rescue Mission will have to wait until at least August to find out whether they can get the Board of Adjustment’s permission to add 300 more beds to their facility.

The hold-up came because neighbors questioned whether City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin is reading Durham’s land-use ordinance too loosely and in the process taking decisions out of the hands of elected officials.
Planners have treated the mission’s permit application as though it’s for a “commercial dormitory,” which is supposed to house “students of a college, university or nonprofit organization.”
Neighbors contend it should instead be treated as a “social service institution,” a term that in the land-use ordinance covers things like substance-abuse treatment facilities, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and “transient lodging.”
Given the zoning of the mission’s property, the difference in the designations is that a social-service institution would need to get a “major special use permit” instead of the lesser variant the Board of Adjustment is reviewing, Planning Supervisor Scott Whiteman said.
Durham law reserves for the City Council the right to review major special use permits covering property inside the city limits.
And the discrepancy drew the Board of Adjustment’s attention at the outset of Tuesday morning’s hearing.
“This doesn’t meet the definition of dormitory,” said George Kolasa, the board’s chairman. “‘Students’ is the key word, ‘students of.’ Not ‘students and.’”
But officials noted that the board in 2011 approved a permit for another Durham Rescue Mission project, the 90-bed “Center for Hope,” that used the commercial-dormitory designation.
“I am not saying you’re bound by it, but there is history,” said Senior Assistant City Attorney Emanuel McGirt, the board’s legal adviser.
The mission’s founder, Ernie Mills, also said his operation doesn’t work like the sort of thing local officials regard as a social-service institution because it doesn’t cater to transients.
“We do not let our residents check in, sleep the night and go back out the next day,” he said, explaining that new clients have to stay on the grounds for seven days to give mission staff time “to get to know them.”
The mission is at the corner of East Main Street and North Alston Avenue. Its expansion plans call for 300 of the new beds to go into three new buildings fronting Main Street. The remaining 40 will go in the basement of the church that’s the centerpiece of the mission campus.
The plan is controversial among neighbors largely because of its scope.
They object because it includes an off-site drainage pond, and because the mission has wound up competing with private-sector homebuyers for property in North-East Central Durham.
Historically, the surrounding Golden Belt neighborhood “was designed to be a village of single-family houses that would people from rural areas who were used to living in single family houses” and were moving to town to work in the tobacco industry, said John Martin, a former president of Durham’s Inter-Neighborhood Council. “These features are precisely why Golden Belt in recent years has undergone a revitalization.”
The mission’s plan, institutional as it is, is the “very antithesis of what the Golden Belt Village once was and what it can still be,” he added.
The postponement came after a short break in the hearing that gave McGirt, mission lawyer Patrick Byker and a lawyer representing one of the neighbors time to confer.
After their talk, Byker requested the delay so Medlin can make an “official determination” on whether the project fits the definition of a commercial dormitory or is a social-service institution.
Medlin’s decisions on questions of ordinance interpretation are subject to appeal to the Board of Adjustment.