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Falls board rejects bid for overnight use of shelter

NIAGARA FALLS – The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday rejected a homeless shelter’s bid that would have allowed it to provide emergency overnight housing for men at its Ferry Avenue facility.

It was the latest step in a dispute over the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission that has been going on for nearly a year. And it is one that remains unresolved despite Tuesday’s action in City Hall thanks to an open court case.

The Zoning Board voted, 4-1, to deny a request for a use variance for the operators of the facility at 1023 Ferry. In addition to emergency overnight shelter, the mission also provides a daily meal program and a long-term, residential counseling program.

Zoning Board member James R. Spanbauer said shelter representatives failed to demonstrate that being prevented from providing overnight emergency shelter would affect the organization’s financial status.

Under the state Department of State’s rules, applicants for use variances must pass a four-pronged test. One of those four requires the applicant to show that without the variance, it would be unable to realize a “reasonable return” for each of the permitted uses of a property.

In other words, the granting of a variance would prevent the shelter from seeing a substantial financial loss.

“When I referred to the record, I could not find anything that substantiated ‘dollars-and-cents proof’ that would show lack of reasonable return if they were not able to have the transient housing piece as compared to the other components,” Spanbauer said.

The the financial information provided by the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission did not differentiate between the finances for any of its programs, he said.

The shelter had been operating without any objection from the city for a few years – that is until last November, when the Memorial Park Block Club questioned whether the facility was operating with the proper city approvals. In April, the city ordered the shelter to stop the emergency overnight housing portion of its operation, and the shelter then took the city to State Supreme Court, where a judge barred the city from halting the operations.

The judge in that case put the proceeding on hold while shelter representatives sought permission from the Zoning Board. The shelter initially asked the board to reconsider the April ruling of the zoning officer, and once that was rejected, pursued a variance and special-use permit.

The parties have a court date early next month, said Charles J. Naughton, attorney for the shelter.

Neither city officials nor shelter representatives would say if or when the overnight shelter services, which have been continuing, will actually have to stop because of Tuesday’s decision.

D. Shaun Smith, the shelter’s executive director, said the organization will continue to pursue its legal options. The overnight shelter program helps find people for its long-term residential program, and the long-term program “will die through attrition,” he said.

Smith, who said he expected the board to deny the application Tuesday, said that if the shelter’s services are eventually halted, the city would face issues with the homeless population.

“It’s sad,” Smith said. “We’re actually helping the community.”

The Niagara County Health Department became involved at the shelter in the last several months following a complaint, and the shelter got a city permit to install new kitchen sinks, Zoning Officer Patrick Ciccarelli said. The kitchen “is legal” as far as the health department is concerned, Ciccarelli said.

Richard J. Kindzia was the only board member to vote against the denial of the variance. Board member John A. Cooper abstained, as he has been president of the Memorial Park Block Club, of which his wife is also a member.