ZBA to hear Warnerville warming center case Wednesday

The Warnerville Methodist Church is pictured in December.

The Warnerville Methodist Church is pictured in December.

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RICHMONDVILLE — A point of tension in the town of Richmondville could be partially sorted out this week.

The Warnerville Methodist Church will ask a town-appointed board on Wednesday to lift an order issued from the code enforcement officer nearly two months ago, which forced the ministry’s warming center to close due to alleged regulatory noncompliance.

Ministry officials called for an emergency Zoning Board of Appeals meeting in mid-December to reverse the decision, arguing, in part, that there was a critical need to shelter homeless people during freezing temperatures.

This was the earliest scheduling date possible for all officials involved, ZBA Chairman Steve Swenson said. By law, the ZBA is required to act on a meeting request within a 45-day window.

On Wednesday, the board could call for a vote or schedule another public hearing on the issue. ZBA members have studied case law on the matter for nearly a month, including the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which provides some elbow room for faith organizations to circumvent zoning requirements.

The meeting will be held at the Richmondville Fire House at 288 Main St. at 5 p.m.

“When it comes to the actual decision, I’m only one voting member of the board,” Swenson said. “Traditionally, it doesn’t take more than one [public hearing], but of course, in this case we would like to see this matter taken care of as soon as possible in terms of the zoning issue.”

Open from Nov. 1 to Nov. 16, when it was ordered closed, the warming center served as Schoharie County’s only CODE Blue-designated shelter. Day-to-day functions were handled by Catholic Charities under contract with the county’s Social Services Department.

Richmondville Code Enforcement Officer Jay Belfiore halted operations under the belief that the site’s occupancy usage breached local hamlet zoning guidelines. The church contends that the center, a religious mission, was permitted by local law and constitutionally protected.

Should the ZBA rule in favor of the church, Swenson said that outstanding building code violations alleged by Belfiore still stand in the way of the site reopening. Church attorney Fred Mauhs maintained that the facility is already up to state building standards.

“I’ve looked into it myself,” Mauhs said. “There’s no issue there.”

Town officials, especially Belfiore, have been the subject of public scrutiny for nearly two months. The Warnerville Methodist Church plans to hold a rally in support of reopening the center Wednesday afternoon.

“I just hope they do the right thing and the right thing is to open up the warming station,” said Fran Sossei, church administrative council chairperson.

Under a 2016 state executive order, all counties are required to shelter homeless people during frigid weather. The Department of Social Services has complied with the order by renting out commercial lodging facilities — spaces Commissioner Donna Becker had decried as costly.

Open for fewer than three weeks, the warming center averaged five homeless people at a time.

Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.

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