By Amanda Moss
The Rockingham Board of Adjustments rejected the conditional use permit application for the rebuilding of The Baker House homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
After a public hearing Tuesday at City Hall that lasted four hours and 30 minutes, board members felt they could not award the permit based on evidence presented by those against it.
The Baker House needs the permit in order to re-open in the Highway Business (B-3) zoning area. Until the fire last August, the property had been grandfathered into the city of Rockingham’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) and permitted to operate as a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
The fire caused the building to suffer damage — the cost of which to repair or replace easily exceeding the UDO’s standard of 25 percent of the appraised valuation of the property. existing law dictates that a building permit would be needed if the damage is greater than 25 percent. The fire caused at least $25,000 in damage. With the property valued at roughly $42,000, that is nearly 60 percent in damages.
“It was a unanimous vote by the five board members there,” said David Wood, vice chairman of the board who presided over the hearing in the chairman’s absence.
Wood said that the board had to take into account four points in order to approve the permit. Those four points included whether the application is complete and in compliance with the rules regulating conditional use permits, how will approval affect the health and welfare of the community, whether the use will substantially injure the value of the adjacent properties and if the building of interest would be in harmony with the surrounding area.
The board answered true to the fact that the Richmond County Mental Health Society — the agency that operated The Baker House — submitted a complete application, but the board did not the application to be in favor of the Mental Health Society on the other three points.
Wood said that the statistics submitted by Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly were taken into consideration when deciding whether or not the approval of the permit would materially endanger public health and safety. Kelly 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. In the past four months the calls dropped 41 percent.
Wood also said that the board believed that the approval of the permit would substantially injure the value of adjacent properties as well as the shelter would not be in harmony with the surrounding area.
With the homes, businesses and the planned Rockingham visitor’s center only 0.2 miles away, it would appear that the shelter would not be in harmony with those buildings around it.
“I do think that a food kitchen and homeless shelter needs to be in Rockingham, but it was clear in the board’s mind this piece of property, if it ever worked, that it had ceased in working,” Wood said.
Wood referred to a public meeting held in 2006 where the neighbors and business owners of the area came together to express their concern for the area due to the rising crime rate. Wood said that the Richmond County Mental Health Society was invited to attend, but did not.
“The room was filled and it went on for hours,” Wood said. “It was one attack after another on how the neighborhood had gone to pieces, and I think that says a lot.”
Arthur B. Thompson Jr., chairman of the Richmond County Mental Health Society, acknowledged that the society did not have a lot of support during the Tuesday’s hearing.
“I’m disappointed at the outcome, but I was not surprised,” Thompson said. “They shot us down.”
Thompson said that the society had two options before them. The society could either seek appeal of the decision to Richmond County Superior Court or it could look elsewhere in the county to build the shelter. The shelter’s previous location, however, was ideal due to the structure that remained after the burning.
“This would have saved us a lot of money,” Thompson said. “A good part of construction is the foundation and the walls, which we didn’t have to mess with. If we have to go seek a new location, we have to start from scratch.”
The society will have to wait until the receipt of a written document with the findings of the board. After that the society will have 30 days to decide whether or not it will appeal the decision to Richmond County’s Superior Court.
Wood expects that the board’s written findings will be available next week. Thompson expects to have that document when his group meets Tuesday to begin to decide what to do next.