WINCHESTER — The Winchester Rescue Mission wants to open a new homeless shelter in a vacant building at 2655 Valley Ave. Problem is, there's nothing in City Code that states where and how a homeless shelter can operate if it's not a direct outreach of a church or religious organization.
That could change in the coming weeks. Winchester interim Zoning Administrator Patrick Elwell has drafted a text amendment regarding so-called "humanitarian shelters" in the city.
The amendment was supposed to be reviewed and voted on Tuesday by the city's Planning Commission. However, four of the panel's seven members missed the meeting, meaning there was no quorum and no votes could be cast.
Regardless, commission Vice Chairwoman Lacey Burnett asked Elwell to give the three panel members in attendance an overview of the draft amendment.
According to Elwell's proposal, homeless shelters would only be allowed with the issuance of conditional-use permits (CUP) and could only be located in the city's Highway Commercial (B-2), Commercial Industrial (CM-1), Health Services (HS), Medical Center (MC) and Education, Institution and Public Use (EIP) zoning districts.
"It is a significant chunk of the city where it [a homeless shelter] would be allowed by CUP," Elwell said.
The Winchester Rescue Mission's proposed new shelter would be located on 1.9 acres in a B-2 district, so its location qualifies it for consideration of a City Council-issued CUP.
Additionally, the draft amendment would prohibit homeless shelters from operating in any of Winchester's residential districts, and no shelter would be allowed within 200 feet of a residential district.
Planning Commissioner Leesa Mayfield said she is staunchly opposed to banning homeless shelters from residential areas, particularly downtown's Central Business (B-1) and Residential Business (RB-1) zoning districts.
"The reason you have humanitarian shelters is because there are people congregating who have needs, and those people are downtown," Mayfield said. "I strongly disagree with having downtown districts excluded from this zoning ordinance."
"I agree," noted commission Vice Chairwoman Lacey Burnett.
Commissioner David Ray said keeping homeless shelters out of residential districts could also make things particularly difficult for the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS) program. That's because WATTS sets up overnight shelters in local churches during cold-weather months, and some of those churches — including the former First United Methodist Church at 308 N. Braddock St., which hosted the WATTS shelter for the entirety of the 2020-21 winter season — are located in residential districts.
"I'm not aware of issues that WATTS has run into while operating [in residential areas]," Ray said. "Putting the onus of finding another place ... is creating hardship for organizations that are effectively serving the significantly homeless."
"I do not think the homed population of the city of Winchester will accept this," Mayfield said. "The homeless population cannot advocate for itself and that's why we are here."
As presented by Elwell, the zoning restrictions would only be eased in the event of a crisis. During a state of emergency, his draft states, Winchester's city manager would have the authority to open a temporary homeless shelter in any zoning district. Any temporary shelter would have to close within seven days of the state of emergency being lifted.
A litany of other suggested rules for independently operated homeless shelters include:
- CUPs would only be granted to nonprofit or government agencies.
- Shelters would have to be equipped to meet basic personal needs such as hygiene, medical care, sleeping, food preparation and dining. Other amenities should include access to outreach programs and services designed to assist people experiencing homelessness.
- Supervisory personnel must be on site whenever shelters are occupied.
- Opioid replacement therapies, including methadone treatments, would not be allowed on premises, nor would any drugs or alcohol.
- Records of guests must be kept for at least two years.
- All necessary licensures must be kept up to date.
- Guests could not be asked to provide compensation in exchange for services.
Once the Planning Commission issues a recommendation on the proposed text amendment, the issue will be forwarded to City Council for a final vote. Unless the commission schedules a special meeting, it will not have an opportunity to issue a recommendation until its next business meeting on Oct. 19.
Attending Tuesday afternoon's Winchester Planning Commission meeting in Rouss City Hall were Vice Chairwoman Lacey Burnett and members Leesa Mayfield and David Ray. Chairman Mark Loring and members John Tagnesi, Brandon Pifer and Paul Richardson were absent.