Warnerville warming center to reopen after controversial shutdown (with video)

Supporters of the Warnerville Methodist Church in Richmondville rally to reopen the warming center on Wednesday.

Supporters of the Warnerville Methodist Church in Richmondville rally to reopen the warming center on Wednesday.

Article Audio:

RICHMONDVILLE — Hugs, laughter and tears abounded Wednesday.

At the end of a protracted, emotion-packed Zoning Board of Appeals hearing in Richmondville that evening, the ZBA voted unanimously to lift an order barring the Warnerville Methodist Church from operating a warming center for homeless people on frigid nights.

ZBA Chairman Steve Swenson didn’t expound on the decision as he left after the meeting. “It was just so … so obvious,” Swenson said.

The issue stems from town Code Enforcement Officer Jay Belfiore in November halting what he considered to be an illegal warming center under town law. The overnight shelter for homeless people had been operating for 16 days when it was ordered closed. It was managed by Catholic Charities of Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie Counties in the state Highway 7 church. The ZBA was tasked with deciding if the warming center qualified as a permit-required facility, as previously described by Belfiore, or a constitutionally-protected religious institution.

Supporters made their case to reopen the facility at the Wednesday meeting.

“If we say in our hearts, we love God, we love his son, but we don’t live it, we don’t practice it, we’re hypocrites,” Richmondville resident Adam Scivek said at the meeting. “This is not a legal, technical, very complicated thing. It’s simple: Let the people stay and we’ll work out the details later.”

Paige Bulmer, an active member of the Cobleskill United Methodist Church, argued the center delivered on the popular 1990s phrase, “What would Jesus do?” Bonnie Jorgensen of Middleburgh characterized the shutdown as tone deaf.

“In my view, what you saw tonight was not a decision on my legal arguments,” Warnerville Methodist Church attorney Fred Mauhs said after the meeting. “This was a case that goes to people’s hearts.”

@dgazette Warnerville warming center to reopen after controversial shutdown – More at DailyGazette.com – Daily Gazette

Mauhs argued to the board that the ministry’s mission was not bound by zoning code and the shutdown two months ago was a sloppy, flagrant overreach of government authority.

The church applied for a ZBA review in mid-December. Swenson maintained at the time that the tardy application, in addition to the group’s lack of correspondence with Belfiore before opening up the center, would be factored into the board’s final judgment.

In the end, board member Maggie Smith said, the decision was clear given the wide-reaching documentation in Mauh’s favor, including case law provided by the New York State Association of Towns.

“I always wanted to be hopeful and I prayed a lot about the outcome and how wonderful it would be,” said Fran Sossei, Warnerville Methodist Church administrative council chairwoman. “But you know, you can’t, that this happened to begin with, there’s a standpoint of mistrust.”

For Cobleskill Methodist Church Rev. Anna Blinn Cole, the ruling carried significant weight.

“This is huge for all of the churches in the county,” said Cole. “It shouldn’t have been an issue, but because the local government stepped in and called into question their church’s ministry, it called into question all churches’ ministries.”

Had the ZBA sided with Belfiore, the church expected to mount a challenge in state Supreme Court. Although ministry officials were convinced the center could legally reopen at any time, they decided against potentially souring community relations.

“I told them I thought it would complicate things if they were to just fly in the face of the cease and desist order and reopen it on their own,” Mauhs recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s give the ZBA a chance to look at this because my sense is these are going to be people who are sensible, and who are going to follow the law.’”


Belfiore has repeatedly said the warming center isn’t up to state building code standards and must fulfill a multi-step governmental approval process before reopening — a claim denied by the ministry and Catholic Charities.

The code enforcement officer in an email on Wednesday doubled down on an offer he made to the ministry less than two months ago.

“I told the church I would work with them and I am good to my word,” Belfiore wrote, referencing his early correspondence with the church following the cease and desist order. “All they have to do is come to me and I will help them through the process.”

Regardless, the Warnerville Methodist Church plans to reopen the center as soon as it addresses restaffing the facility with Catholic Charities the Schoharie County Department of Social Services (DDS). Mauhs expects the facility to be open in a matter of days.

At peak, 14 staffers were assigned to the site and six more were in the hiring phase. Two shifts of two staffers were needed per night at the 10-bed facility.

If needed, staffers from the agency’s Oneonta warming center could fill in, Catholic Charities said.

“If they all stay, we’re not in bad shape to continue on,” Christy Houck said. “And then we have a few extra we can hire to get our numbers up if we need to replace a few or they’ve moved on to other work.”

DSS has lodged homeless people in hotels and motels across the region during cold weather to comply with a 2016 executive order. DSS and Catholic Charities for more than a year searched the county for what officials believed to be a more cost-effective and sustainable alternative: opening a warming center.

They eventually found partners in the Warnerville hamlet, which had housed an evicted family during the spring.

For Rev. Mary Ellen Moore, the closing and return of the warming center is a part of a greater plan.

“People are talking about soup kitchens, other churches are talking how can we help the other United Methodist churches and other churches — how can we help, how can we be part of this,” said Moore. “So the fact that this happened I can’t help thinking it’s part of the bigger plan, so that we can be recognized as those who want to help people who are in need as much and as best we can.”

The situation also has had an impact on Mauhs, who offered his services pro-bono after reading a story on the shutdown from the Cobleskill Times-Journal. The Schoharie County-based attorney has long attended Catholic Mass with his wife, but now plans to modify his Sunday routine due to a new bond cultivated with members of the Warnerville ministry.

“I’ll tell you, I am so touched by the warmth and humanity I feel from that congregation that I’m going to join them,” Mauhs said.

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

| Fulton, Montgomery counties | All Local News |

Categories: -News-, Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

Leave a Reply