The motel would be used as transitional housing for those in need.
Butler Homeless Initiative Inc.’s mission to purchase the Blue Spruce motel and utilize it as a transitional housing facility was a main topic for discussion at the Butler County Commission meeting on Tuesday morning.
Director of Community Development David Alfaro began the discussion.
“We’ve been given a request from the City of El Dorado to make a recommendation of the rezoning of the land where the Blue Spruce motel is currently located,” began Alfaro. “The request is to rezone the land from R-S residential Suburban District to a C-1 Business General District in conformance with the Butler County Comprehensive Plan. The tract only contains a motel and an RV park. They would use this motel as transitional housing for those in need. The city of El Dorado has done some extensive analysis and the staff for the county has pieced together lots of information. They examined the compatibility of the neighborhood and found that the rezoning does meet the comprehensive plan.”
Amid some controversy with the commission, some clarification of the intent of the agenda item and the decision being made was required.
“The question being raised before this board is not whether we are in favor or are opposed to this transitional housing, but rather if it complies with the comprehensive plan,” explained Commissioner Dan Woydziak.
Alfaro went on to explain that the commissioners would review the request ad give a recommendation as to whether the rezoning adheres to the comprehensive plan or not. After the commission has made their recommendation, the El Dorado city commission would be notified and in order to approve the changes, a super-majority would have to be reached.
“The main job of the board of county commissioners right now is to review the rezoning request and review whether the request is within the scope and best interest of the Butler County Comprehensive Plan,” explained County Administrator Will Johnson.
“All we’re doing right now is making a recommendation on the zoning,” said Woydziak.
“The planning commission denied the zoning,” added Commissioner Peggy Palmer.
“That is why a super-majority of the city commission is required,” answered Alfaro.
“This meeting should have taken place before the planning commission,” said Commissioner Jeff Masterson.
“Your decision making process should be based upon what you hear here today and not what the planning commission has already decided,” explained Alfaro. “As far as conformance to the plan, if you look in the neighborhood itself, there is quite a bit of commercial zoning already.”
Some commissioners seemed skeptical of the compliance to the comprehensive plan.
“I’m really not sure sure this rezoning complies with the comprehensive plan,” explained Commissioner Ed Myers. Other issues like this one, when they have come before this board, they were denied. From what I can see, quite a bit of the commercial zoning in the area pre-dates the planning and zoning procedures and they were then grandfathered in. I’m not sure the decision we’re contemplating here truly reflects the intent or the spirit of the comprehensive plan.”
“We need to make sure we’re focused solely on the zoning at this point,” said Alfaro.
“To me, changing this area from a Residential Suburban District to a Business General District is a huge change,” added Myers.
“This is the city’s area of jurisdiction,” explained Johnson. “Their zonings and classifications are very different than ours. If we move two lots down and hypothetically someone wants to rezone that lot in order to construct a filling station, it would zoned exactly like this one and it would fit in this neighborhood.”
“We always look at what is going on in the area,” added Palmer. “When we rezone things like this in the county, we can add an APO and we look at how it will affect everyone around there.”
“We’re looking at a change from a residential zoning to a commercial business zoning,” said Alfaro. “You can always recommend the rezone and not recommend the special use permit.”
“I’m not on board for approving the special use permit if the city is not on board,” added Commissioner Mike Wheeler.
“This has all been backwards,” said Woydziak. “What we we really need to do is take this item on its own merits with what we hear today and make a recommendation from what we hear today.”
“At this point in time, I would have to say I agree with what the city is trying to do with this. I would have to say no.”
Several community members were also present to speak on the issue.
“First of all, I want to thank you for your consideration of this issue,” said Debbie Work, the real estate agent representing Butler Homeless initiative, Inc. “According to documents I have found, the majority of the property in question is already zoned as a C-1 Business General District and the apartment part of the property is the only thing being considered for rezoning.”The only reason the zoning is requested is because it will not be used residentially. The property is already used and taxed commercially.”
She went on to explain that the property has been used by several organizations in the community for many years to provide a temporary shelter for families in need. There have been several questions raised about the safety of using the motel to house homeless families. More stringent regulations will be able to be placed on the facility when it is officially labeled as a transitional shelter.
The commission questioned the difference between what the hotel is housing now and what it will be able to do in the future.
“The rules and regulations are not nearly as strict for a motel as they are for a homeless shelter,” began Work. “A hotel, for example, does not require a background check before someone can check in. You don’t have to have a TB test before you check into a motel. Most hotels have a bar and patrons are encouraged to drink and relax. A homeless shelter is capable of having a zero tolerance drug and alcohol policy. The contract that is currently on the property is contingent upon the special use permit and zoning approval by the CIty of El Dorado. Unless the city approves the request, the motel will not be sold.”
Blue Spruce neighbor Tim Donges also addressed the commission.
“I am also a real estate agent licensed in the State of Kansas,” Tim began. “I have dome quite a bit of research on this. Some of my research finds public perception is a major indicator of property values. The establishment of a homeless shelter will affect the property values and future use of the area.”
Tim went on to explain that in some of the research he was able to find, public safety of those living in and around homeless shelters can be at risk. He noted that in his research, it was found that homeless people had a higher arrest rate than domicile people. They were also found in the research to have a high crime rate between the homeless.
“There are other properties within the El Dorado area that would work for this facility,” he explained. “We have the safety of the public to worry about. When the homeless are focused in a certain area, crime rates tend to go up.”
Natalie Donges then chose to address the commission.
“I’m an RV park owner,” she began. “I question whether this would be good for any business in the area. I also want to point out that it may be within the scope of the comprehensive plan, but is it within the best interest of the area? I’m not against the facility itself, but I do not believe it would fit in this area. As Tim stated, in our research, we have been able to find other areas within the city that might be better suited for this type of facility. The city might have jurisdiction over the zoning of this area, but the county is responsible for emergency services coverage with the sheriff’s office and fire department.”
Wanda Stewart was next to address the commission.
“I’m here on behalf of the homeless initiative,” she began. “I lost my husband in late July and he was in support of the mission to purchase and use the Blue Spruce. Following Stan’s death, our two children found a note and I would like to read that here today. ‘The character of our city is judged in a large part on how we treat our citizens. El dorado is a city and county of character.’ Regardless of how we all feel personally we are all called to help those in need. I would like for you all to keep in mind whether it does meet the comprehensive plan or not and I believe it does.”
Lindsey Sanner then spoke before the commission.
“Mental health is a big concern for people that do not have a home,” she said. “But before mental health can be addressed, people need to have their basic needs met. This is something the Homeless Initiative is trying to provide. I work in early childhood education and a lot of those I work with do not have homes. Some of them are living in tents and garages or in people’s back yards. This is in our city and it is very sad. We’re trying to take care of each other. Maybe their parents might be criminals, but these children are not. South Central Mental health with partner with the initiative to help these families, but first we must meet their basic needs.”
“No one on this board doubts the help the homeless initiative gives to members of this community,” said Wheeler.
Another supporter of the initiative, Cheryl Acuff took a moment to speak to the commission.
“Today, we’re not trying to decide whether we need a homeless shelter or not,” Acuff said. “What we need to decide is whether the zoning complies with the comprehensive plan. One of the properties mentioned by Mr. Donges, the church on South Topeka, would also have to be rezoned. There is also the financing issue here. The people that are selling this property are willing to work with the Initiative on how to finance the building.”
Ann Carpenter was the next to speak.
“My husband and I own the storage facility in the area,” she explained. “We are in support of the zoning change.”
Other community members present at the commission meeting also took the opportunity to speak.
“I am the president of Kids Need to Eat in El Dorado,” said Judie Storandt. “I speak in the support of the zoning change. With regard to the zoning and the permit, I can hear that these are not separate issues in your minds.”
She went on to point out when it comes to issues like the one at hand, the commission should be asking three questions: is there a legitimate reason to deny the request? Is it a reasonable request? Is there a need?
“There were over 100 homeless students in the Butler County school system last year,” began Storandt. “The homeless in our community are predominately families. There is evidence there is an obvious need for a solution. Can you really deny the request because of the specter of the homeless living there? The homeless we have in our community are very different than those reported in the statics given earlier. Our homeless are very different than those in urban areas.”
Teresa Henderson spoke next.
“I am a nurse at the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center here in El Dorado,” she said. “We are faced with this problem every day. Young families with small children either working part time or at a fast food job who can’t afford a house to live in. They’ve fallen on hard times.”
She went on to explain one thing she has learned from her experiences in the workplace is a person who is sleeping on a friend or family member’s couch is not considered homeless.
“A shelter provides them with an opportunity,” explained Henderson. “To be admitted to a shelter for only one night can qualify them for housing under a grant that has already been allotted. I’ve given people the phone number of the Homeless Initiative. They didn’t qualify for housing assistance because they’re sleeping on someone’s couch and they’re not considered homeless. If they go to a shelter, they will qualify for housing. It is a glitch that is trying to be resolved.”
Corey Landreth, the pastor of Real Life Christian Church, also tried to keep the commission on track with the issue.
“I know there has been a lot of conversation about these issues,” he said. “I serve on the board of BHI. There are people who live there who are concerned about the area they live in. You’ve also got the sale barn right there. I spoke recently with a home owner from that area and he mentioned a meth lab was recently busted in that area. There is also a trailer park. When I told him about the shelter, he couldn’t understand why it was a bad idea. he said: ‘there are quite a few other things going on in that area. I don’t know how a homeless shelter could lower property values more than what is already going on.’”
He went on to explain the purpose of the discussion at hand was whether or not the rezoning adheres to the comprehensive plan. The zoning goes along with the city’s desire to expand growth to bring more opportunity in the commercial sector in that area.
“The commission’s and the community’s concerns are nothing that we as a board did not think in the first place,” said Landreth. “Serving on the board and knowing what goes on there, I see it probably as less of an issue than others might. We’ve looked at all of the other places mentioned in this meeting. They’re not at all compatible with what we are trying to do.”
“Other than the fact the current owner is willing to carry the note,” said Masterson, “what is so attractive about this location? It would be a terrible transportation problem. I just don’t understand why it is so attractive.”
“Several of the places we as a board looked at, the old Moose Lodge, for instance, would all have to be rezoned as well,” he explained. “If we were to go into a large structure and try to recreate it to be used as a homeless shelter, it would take a lot of work. We would have to create separate living quarters well as an open common area as well as separate bathroom facilities. Trying to create a usable space for clients that come in is very difficult in such a large space.
“When we saw the Blue Spruce was for sale, we all thought about how outside of the city it is, but then we realized it was a perfect situation. It already has separate living quarters and private bathrooms. If BHI is granted the opportunity to use the facility, a whole host of security measures will be added including cameras and round the clock volunteers. There is also a prison across the street. The board has already spoken about purchasing a van to haul people back and forth to jobs and school,” he continued.
“Are we ever going to be able to find a place that meets all the requirements of the city and all the community members’ requirements as well as our own? The city would have had an issue with the possibility of the homeless shelter dropping property values right next to the golf course. Some of the questions and concerns that have come up will just not be there.”
More supporters of the project addressed the commission.
“With the zoning definitions, BHI will only be able to shelter 30 people, no matter how much space they have,” said BHI President Melody Gault. “I want to thank you for your consideration of this issue. I do ask that you please focus on the land use. The face of homeless is often not what you think. About 20 years ago, my husband and I separated. If I hadn’t had great parents, I don’t know where I would have gone. I came back to the area with no job, no, car and a 5-year-old. Some of the ladies we’ve been able to help through the Initiative just need a hand so they can get a job and get on their feet.”
Danica Murry, another BHI supporter, also addressed the commission.
“I work at Butler Community College,” she began. “All it would take is for my husband or I to lose our jobs and we would be in a similar situation to many of the homeless in the county. I feel that in this society, it is our responsibility to provide avenues of opportunity for those in need. The women’s shelter has operated for many years in our community with no negative stipulations. It is in the best interest of the county’s poorest citizens for this shelter to open.”
Myrna Byfield, a neighbor in the Blue Spruce area, also spoke.
“I live in the area of the Blue Spruce Motel,” she began. “We’ve already had a lot of issues in this area. At first, I didn’t like the prison because it was going to be in my back yard. I know there is a need for a shelter, but my main concern is the location is not within the city. This location is not good for the homeless – it just puts them outside of the city limits. In the area, we have no fire hydrants for the fire department and we are law protected by the Sheriff. Because the Sheriff’s office is so often wide-spread across the county, they are not often quick to respond should there be a problem. Having the homeless walk the highway when it is illegal to hitchhike is potentially dangerous as well. This area does not make for a good location.”
Michelle Loss, a former Miss Kansas, was the last to speak.
“I know today we’re not here to convince you of opening a homeless shelter,” she began. “But your decision today will ultimately effect that. Providing a place where we can invest in the lives of people is not going to go away. Giving to those that need it the most is a chance to change. I know there’s fear, but let’s not let the fear of what could happen stop us from helping those that need it.”
“We’re not here to discuss whether or not we support this issue,” said Palmer. “We all want to help kids and their families in the county. The location for this shelter is key. I think El Dorado should make this decision. It does fit into our comprehensive plan.”
“I feel it is in conformance,” said Masterson. “I do question whether this is a great location or not because is is rural, but I see no reason to find it is not in conformance with the comprehensive plan.”
“I’ll have to respectively disagree,” said Myers. “I don’t feel that this request does fit into our plan.”
“I think it complies,” said Woydziak.
“I don’t think it fits the plan either,” said Wheeler. “I don’t think it would be a good use of this area.”
Woydziak then moved to approve the zoning change recommendation to the City of El Dorado and Masterson seconded.
“If I may interrupt, I just want to emphasize I do feel changing this zoning is a huge change that will ripple through this area for a long time to come,” Myers said. “I don’t feel historically this is the type of character for the area.”
The issue failed 3-2 with Myers, Wheeler and Palmer opposing.
Following the failure to recommend the zoning change, Work again addressed the commission to explain the property has been used to house the homeless in order to help them qualify for assistance. The Salvation Army’s budget is driven down $100,000 every two years because of the need to place families temporarily to qualify them for assistance. If given the choice, the Butler Homeless Initiative would be funded privately.
Debra Eagen also addressed the commission to explain the majority of homeless in Butler County are situation homeless. The parents lost their job, their house was foreclosed on. Sixty-four percent of the country is one paycheck away from being situationally homeless.
Masterson then moved to approve the recommendation to the City of El Dorado for the proposed issuance of a Special Use Permit and its conformance with the Butler County Comprehensive Plan. The vote failed 3-2 with Myers, Wheeler and Palmer opposing.
Kari Adams can be reached at email@example.com.