GLOVERSVILLE — The Free Methodist Church of Gloversville has filed an Article 78 lawsuit in Fulton County Supreme Court seeking to annul the city’s denial of a permanent certificate of occupancy for a Code Blue homeless shelter at the former YWCA at 33 Bleecker St.
Named in the lawsuit are the Gloversville Zoning Board of Appeals, city building inspector David Fox and the city itself.
The suit was filed by attorney Benjamin McGuire of the Gloversville-based law firm Wood Seward, McGuire & Sacco, on behalf of Rev. Richard Wilkinson, leader of the Free Methodist Church of Gloversville, which owns 33 Bleecker St.
The lawsuit is latest in a series of maneuvers over the last six months by the nonprofit entity the Center for Hope and the city government as they’ve struggled with how to provide temporary housing for the homeless during the winter, and whether a temporary homeless shelter should be allowed at the former YWCA, located inside the city’s “Form-based Downtown Overlay” commercial district.
McGuire said that although the city Common Council on Jan. 1 voted to change the city’s zoning code to expressly prohibit Code Blue Temporary shelters inside the city’s “Form-Based Downtown Overlay District”, while allowing them for the first time in the city’s other commercial zones, he will argue in court the Center for Hope’s application for a permanent certificate of occupancy for the Code Blue shelter at 33 Bleecker St. should be allowed because the city code was incorrectly interpreted by Fox and the city ZBA during the Center for Hope’s application process in 2020.
“We probably won’t know until April, maybe into May, what the court will decide,” McGuire said.
Gloversville City Attorney Anthony “Tony” Casale in a text message statement Tuesday said he would have no comment on the case at this time, but “will be happy to comment once the case is concluded.”
Wilkinson is the person who dubbed the former YWCA building the “Center for Hope” which is both the name for a food pantry operation he manages at the location and the name of the nonprofit which ran a temporary Code Blue Shelter there temporarily from February to mid-April 2020.
The city granted a temporary certificate of occupation for the shelter’s operation, which capped the total number of homless people allowed to stay in the building at 10 persons.
Despite the limitation, the building housed a total of 27 people over 34 Code Blue nights, the longest stay by one person being 26 nights, according to the Center for Hope’s board of directors.
According to the lawsuit, the Center for Hope submitted a site plan for a permanent certificate of occupancy for the Code Blue shelter at 33 Bleecker St. on Sept. 16, but city building inspector David Fox wrote a letter to the organization on Oct. 21 determining that a Code Blue shelter was not acceptable in the city’s commercial districts or in the “Form-Based Overlay District.”
The form-based overly area has important differences from the rest of the city’s commercial zone, including a ban on adult entertainment businesses, a ban on “rooming houses” and other form-based rules that pertain to aesthetic elements of buildings and signage.
In November the Center for Hope appealed Fox’s ruling to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA issued its “Final Letter of Determination” on Jan. 22, upholding Fox’s interpretation after the ZBA had ruled unanimously in December against the Center for Hope’s appeal and the center decided against pursuing a “use variance”, which likely would not have been granted to a nonprofit entity.
The Article 78 lawsuit filed by McGuire seeks to overturn the ZBA ruling based on three arguments outlined in the court filing:
• Gloversville’s Zoning Code, at the time of the initial application, was completely silent with respect to a Code Blue Facility or Shelter.
“That type of use was not contemplated at the time the initial Code was written, and that term was not defined, nor was it contained in any portion of the Code or within any of the applicable zoning districts,” reads the lawsuit.
• A Code Blue Facility or Shelter was also not listed as a prohibited use within any of the Zoning Districts located within the City.
• Under New York State Law, any ambiguities within the Municipality’s Code shall be resolved in favor of the property owner.
No mention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 executive order establishing Code Blue temporary shelters is made in the lawsuit, although the order specifically allows for the establishment of the shelters to “supersede all local laws, as well as any local directives, guidance, or policies to the contrary.”
On Jan. 12 the Common Council voted 7-0 to contribute $25,000 toward the establishment of a new Center for Hope Code Blue temporary homeless shelter to operate between Jan. 15 and April 30 at 144 E. Fulton St.
Wilkinson said the city funding helps pay for the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless [IPH] to provide four staff members for the location to operate the shelter.
“We’ve got four staff members. One staff member per shift, so two full time, two part time, and then we’ve got 10-15 volunteers,” Wilkinson said. “We open at 6 p.m., so from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. there’s a volunteer and a staff member. We do lights out at 9 p.m., so people go to bed at that time, and then from like 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. in the morning we have a volunteer to help get people up, get them out the door and then help clean.”
The space for the shelter includes four single rooms, and then one larger room that can accomodate two to three people.
Wilkinson has said the accommodations at the former YWCA are much larger, and it is already set up to house both men and women, potentially up to 40 people, which is why his organization remains committed to trying to reopen the Code Blue Shelter at 33 Bleecker St.