Editor’s note: The Rockingham Board of Adjustments public hearing lasted more than three hours Tuesday night. Additional coverage will be available online at www.yourdailyjournal.com and in Thursday’s print edition of The Daily Journal.
By Amanda Moss
ROCKINGHAM — The Rockingham Board of Adjustments met on Tuesday night to hear evidence for and against the conditional use permit (CUP) for the rebuilding of the Baker House homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
The Mental Health Society of Richmond County owned and operated The Baker House as a homeless shelter and soup kitchen for more than 20 years. On Aug. 14, 2013, the shelter suffered significant fire, water and smoke damage after the vacant building next door burnt down. The blaze left the society to decide whether to try and rebuild or relocate the shelter. In order to rebuild in its previous location, 428 and 430 S. Hancock St., the society would need a CUP.
The board conducted a quasi-judicial hearing on the permit. The factors that the board consider when making a recommendation to approve the CUP is whether the application is complete and in compliance with the rules regulating CUPs, how will approval affect the health and welfare of the community and if the building of interest would be in harmony with the surrounding area.
John Massey, board planner for the city’s Board of Adjustments, spoke for about 20 minutes on behalf of the city of Rockingham with issues concerning the rebuilding of the shelter. Massey said it would be permissible to rebuild the shelter using the current walls, if they are usable, but if for any reason the remaining structure could not be used, the building would have to conform with current regulations, such as set backs from the road — the distance which is 30 feet from the road. The existing walls are barely the width of a sidewalk from the roadway. The building, whether using the old structure or not, will also need to provide paved parking area.
These were not the only concerns Massey addressed to the board. Massey said that local business owners in the area described undesirable activities going on in the area during the operation of the soup kitchen and homeless shelter. To put a numerical value to the issues that the city has been facing for a number of years, Massey requested that Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly come up with some statistical data.
Kelly spoke for around 10 minutes after Massey about what the numbers showed. He pulled call records from January 2010 to February 2014. He also narrowed the search down to four zones that encompassed the area of the shelter, there are a total of 29 zones in Rockingham.
In that 44-month period prior to the fire, the average number of calls per month to the area was 46. In the rest of Rockingham it was 126 calls per month. In the six months after the shelter burned down, calls to the area dropped to 33 per month, or 28 percent, while calls around the city only dropped to 121 per month, or 4 percent. Kelly said the number of calls to that area continues to drop.
Carole Venable, a member of the board of directors for the Richmond County Mental Health Society — the agency that operated The Baker House — spoke for 10 minutes in favor of, and the need for, the CUP. Venable, a resident of County Home Road in Rockingham, said that the soup kitchen and shelter had many supporters for the rebuilding and operation of the shelter.
“We have 16 churches in the area that financially support us,” Venable said. “We also have 18 additional churches that provide food and cooking teams for both Rockingham and Hamlet. We want to provide a safe place for those in need.”
Jason Sengues, an attorney working on behalf of the society, also presented for around 40 minutes in favor of rebuilding of the shelter. While Sengues offered no new evidence, he did question whether or not the numbers in Kelly’s report accurately reflected the reality of the situation stating that the numbers often spike and at different times of the year.
Roger and Judith Coan, who live across from The Baker House on Midway Road, spoke for an hour against the rebuilding of the shelter. Roger Coan listed out the different experiences that he and his family have had over the years since the shelter had been near their property. The couple have been living in their home for 63 years and each year it has gotten considerably worse since the shelter was present.
Roger Coan sited issues of prostitution, drug abuse, vandalism and trespassing as some of many issues they have had to deal with, and he wasn’t alone. John Weatherford, who also lives on Midway Road, spoke briefly and gave examples of things he has had to deal with due to, in his opinion, the shelter.
David Wood, vice chairman of the board, asked Weatherford if life had been better since the shelter had burned down.
“Yes sir, it has gotten better,” Weatherford said in response.
Rebecca Price, another attorney for the society advocating for the CUP, began to rebuttal against those that spoke against the CUP at 8:43 p.m.
Wood said at the start of the meeting that board members expected to hear all testimony Tuesday night and then forward a recommendation to Mayor Steve Morris and the City Council.