GLOVERSVILLE — The advisory board of a downtown Code Blue homeless shelter on Thursday voted to apply for a “use variance” to continue to operate the shelter at the former YWCA on Bleecker Street after the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted 4-0 to reject the group’s application for permanent certificate of occupancy on Wednesday.
Rev Rich Wilkinson of the Gloversville Free Methodist Church, which operates the Center of Hope shelter, participated in Wednesday’s ZBA public hearing. Wilkinson’s church owns the YWCA building and operated the shelter under a temporary certificate of occupancy from February to mid-April. Because the temporary permit expired, the shelter has not been able to reopen when temperatures drop below freezing.
Wilkinson streamed a live video message to members of his church after the ZBA voted down the Center for Hope’s application.
“It is cold out here. There is snow on the ground, and people are out sleeping in this. Unfortunately they turned us down, but this isn’t the end,” he said. “God has a purpose for us, and God has a purpose for this. Pray that God softens the hearts of people here in this city, so we can get this open as soon as possible.”
The Center of Hope sought approval for the site from the city’s ZBA after Building Inspector David Fox ruled city code did not allow a homeless shelter in that area of downtown.
After listening to about 90 minutes worth of public comments from 16 speakers Wednesday night, most of them in favor of the shelter’s application, the board ruled that Gloversville’s city code does not allow a homeless shelter because there is no definition for a homeless shelter in the code.
The city code used to have a provision for a “rooming house,” but the Common Council removed that definition about two years ago when it also banned adult entertainment businesses downtown.
Matt Capano, owner of the Gloversville True Value Hardware store next door to the former YWCA and New York Lunch, a restaurant on Bleecker Street, objected to the shelter. He said there have been more negative incidents associated with the shelter than the one time a man urinated on the lamp post near his businesses. He also claimed to have faced harassment from shelter supporters.
“They keep saying there was no trouble, but they failed miserably,” he said. “People say they want to try it again. They failed miserably last year, and they’ll fail terribly again this year.”
ZBA chairman Jeffrey Ashe told the Center for Hope it is still within its rights to file for a use variance from the ZBA. The board has the power to grant special permission to allow landowners to use property for a purpose otherwise not allowed or prohibited by the city’s code.
Jerry Ryan, a retired college professor who is a member of the Center for Hope’s board, issued a news release Thursday explaining what the center will do leading up to the Jan. 6 ZBA meeting.
“Attorney Ben McGuire will work with the Center of Hope’s Advisory Board in drafting the variance request for review at the January ZBA meeting,” Ryan wrote. “The Advisory Board will also ask Gloversville City Mayor Vince DeSantis and the Common Council to amend the City’s Zoning Code to include the definition of ‘shelter’ as designated in the Code Blue Executive Order issued by NYS Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016. The above two pathways will be time consuming.”
Cuomo’s Code Blue executive order allows temporary homeless shelters to operate when the temperature falls below 32 degrees. The temperature has fallen below 32 degrees every night for the past week in Gloversville.
Between February and mid-April, Center for Hope representatives said, the center provided shelter at the YWCA for 27 people over 34 Code Blue nights, with no more than 8 total people in a given night. The longest stay at the shelter was 26 nights, and the second longest was 13 nights. The shelter is seeking permission now for only 10 beds, though the YWCA can hold 40 guests.
DeSantis said prior to the Wednesday ZBA meeting that he does not think it would be proper for him or the Common Council to put “our thumbs on the scale” by issuing a temporary occupancy certificate while the Center for Hope is navigating through the normal regulatory process of the city’s Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals.
“The authority to interpret the zoning ordinance is delegated by charter, by law, to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the building inspector determines whether something is an acceptable use and issues the building permit or not,” DeSantis said. “The City Council and the mayor have no control over that.”
The council should consider amending the city code to have a formal definition of what would constitute a homeless shelter, DeSantis said.
“There is nothing in our zoning ordinance that talks about a homeless shelter, and I’ll bet you a lot of zoning ordinances in the state or the whole country don’t have that,” DeSantis said. “Perhaps there should be. The council should look at it.”
Ryan said the Center for Hope will attempt to help the homeless while it works to obtain a permanent certificate of occupancy.
“The Advisory Board is looking at other activities in which it can engage to assist the homeless, such as the distribution of donated blankets and socks,” Ryan said.