NIAGARA FALLS – Memorial Park Block Club members chalked up a small victory on Tuesday night in the ongoing dispute involving a Ferry Avenue shelter for the homeless.
But the city Zoning Board of Appeals’ ruling to uphold an April order by the city’s Department of Code Enforcement likely won’t lead to neighbors seeing any day-to-day changes for now at the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission, and the organization plans to take the issue back to court.
The Zoning Board, by a 5-0 vote, rejected a request from the shelter to reinterpret a cease-and-desist order issued three months ago that the shelter at 1023 Ferry stop providing emergency overnight housing.
After the vote, Zoning Board Vice Chairman Christopher R. Stoianoff told shelter representatives they may apply for a variance and special-use permit, and would have to do so by Aug. 29. The board also encouraged the Department of Code Enforcement to refrain from any enforcement activities against the shelter so it has time to prepare its petition to the board.
So unless inspectors pursue enforcement, that means overnight emergency housing will be allowed at the shelter until the variance request is heard in September.
Michele G. Bergevin, one of the shelter’s attorneys, said the organization will apply for the variance, but also will head back to State Supreme Court to ask a judge to prevent the city from pursuing any enforcement.
Attorneys for the mission filed a lawsuit against the city in April, and Justice Frank Caruso issued a temporary restraining order barring the city from enforcing its decision to stop overnight housing. That case was adjourned while the mission pursued approval from the Zoning Board.
The shelter, which opened in 2010, also provides a long-term residential program and serves meals daily, activities which will not be affected.
Zoning Board member James Spanbauer, the only member of the panel to publicly offer any insight into the reasons for his vote, said he consulted with the city’s Law Department in his deliberations. Spanbauer made virtually the same legal argument city officials made last month when the request for a reinterpretation came before the Zoning Board, which proceeded to table the matter.
They said the emergency overnight housing is more akin to transient housing, than to a “group living” situation, as argued by the shelter. Transient overnight housing was not allowed in that area at the time the shelter purchased the property in 2010.
The Ferry Avenue property is in an area zoned residential but the city says that does not permit homeless shelters, thereby requiring a variance.
Under a 2012 city law, any group living situation, including homeless shelters, must be granted a special permit.
Shelter officials have argued that the city sent them a letter signing off on the shelter use before they bought the property. They now say, after about $100,000 in improvements made to the property, the city has changed its tune.