Bonita Springs – On April 18 crowds again overflowed City Council Chambers, filling the lobby hall, spilling into Room 118 and out to the parking lot, where a live TV feed of the City Council meeting was set up.
The subject, yet again, was St. Matthew’s House proposed homeless shelter, then proposed at 260 beds.
All the protagonists were there that day. Van Ellison, who has dedicated his career to helping homeless people. Concerned citizens, who have been casually branded as NIMBYs, even though their leaders do not oppose a shelter suitably sized and placed with appropriate guidelines. Charlie Mauer, representing the Bernwood property owner, who has developed some of Bonita’s best properties.
On that Wednesday morning they were characters in a cast of hundreds dressed for color wars. The white shirted opponents, with yellow “BeSafe Bonita” stickers. St. Matthew’s House supporters dressed in blue, with “Open Hearts, Open Minds” logos.
Ben Nelson, Bonita’s mayor, takes pride in bringing people together. On that day, his task was more making sure the white shirts and the blue shirts showed respect for each other. The crowd for the most part heeded Nelson’s sermon on civility even as speakers disagreed strongly. There was not much positive spirit on display in the room.
How has it come to this in a town unsurpassed for compassion in southwest Florida? In Bonita, thousands volunteer at the Café of Life, Literacy Council, Assistance Office, Lion’s Club, Center for the Arts, Los Hermanos, Amigos Center, Habitat, Rotaries, Veterans groups and scores of other organizations and churches. Millions of dollars are raised every year for the United Way, Community Foundation, Barbara’s Friends and many more.
How has it happened, and why?
Part of it may be due to weeks of reports of a smaller shelter, said to be for women and children, which had morphed into the mega shelter proposed at the time of the meeting. And then there is what some feel are less than totally forthcoming responses to reasonable questions and concerns about the proposed facility. Also, some feel the label of “homeless” has been applied, without appropriate nuance, to many needy Bonitians who have roofs over their heads and whose real crying need is housing assistance, perhaps not a homeless shelter.
But there is another side to this. At the time of St. Matthew’s Causeway Lumber application last year, there were unprintable threats and insults hurled at St. Matthew’s leader. Some have directed unkind words at the homeless people his organization serves. Parsing reasonable concerns of others in the midst of that may not be easy to do.
It’s a bit like seeing cousins estranged because of who said what to whom at Thanksgiving dinner years ago.
Almost three hours into the public comment period, one of the final speakers walked to the City Hall microphone. Judy Wilkerson had not chosen to suit up in the blue or white. She supported a temporary moratorium on homeless shelters, but more telling was the way she approached the subject.
“My husband and I have been residents of Bonita Springs for twelve years and Lee County for nineteen years,” she said.
“We support St. Matthew’s House both individually and through the First Presbyterian Church where I have served as an elder. We appreciate the service St. Matthew’s has given to Naples. We think they are a very well run facility.
“With regard to Bonita Springs, there is no lack of compassion and caring within our City… If it is determined based upon reliable research that Bonita Springs has a need or potential need for a homeless shelter then we ask [City Council] as our leaders to … give the City the time it needs to do the smart planning to minimize any potential impact on businesses and surrounding neighborhoods. At the same time it will maximize the possible opportunities for the future clients of this facility.
“I have lived, worked and witnessed homelessness in Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and San Diego. I have had the privilege of feeding the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. I know that lives can be transformed with loving encouragement and proper opportunities.
“We are depending on [City Council] to take the steps and plan wisely to maintain the caring and compassionate culture of Bonita Springs. We ask you to vote for the moratorium and set up the necessary guidelines.”
After public comment, City Council passed a homeless shelter moratorium by a 7-0 vote.
Specifically the law imposes a moratorium on “land development approvals for homeless shelters” for a period up to one year, starting May 18, 2012.
On the day before City Council met, the City received an application for a land development approval for St. Matthew’s proposed 260-bed homeless shelter facility.
“The moratorium would not apply to us,” said St Matthew’s Ellison at the City Council meeting. The materials submitted were, he said, “sufficient and comprehensive.”
“We hope the City will continue to pray and consider and evaluate citizens’ requests heard and safety concerns addressed. We will be a good citizen as we have been,” he said.
The City’s Community Development Office will review the development order application and determine whether to approve it.
“The bottom line is that there cannot be critical failings in their application,” John Dulmer, head of the Community Development Office, told the Spotlight when asked about normal approval standards.
“There can not be comments that we are getting from our department’s reviewers or other agencies or departments stating that this project would not be consistent with the land development code or other regulations that those agencies may be using to review the application.”
Dulmer outlined various aspects of the review process.
“In our office we look at the traffic impact statement for impacts it will have and how they will handle traffic on site. We look at the landscaping, the drainage, and the storm water prevention plan for the water quality.
“We send it to the fire district for review against the fire code. They are going to be looking at access through the site, around buildings, fire hydrants, and fire lanes so that they can get to the property to fight fire. The Lee County Department of Transportation will review it. Lee County Natural Resources will review it because there is a flow way on the north boundary of this property.”
It is anticipated that other agencies and City departments will also review the project, including the Sheriff’s office and public works departments, he said.