Belltown homeless shelter debate continues

Sussex Board of Adjustment tables decision until June 5 meeting
May 20, 2017

Story Location:
Belltown  Delaware  19958
United States

After more than two hours of testimony for and against, the Sussex County Board of Adjustment tabled a request by Rehoboth’s Immanuel Shelter to open an emergency homeless shelter at the former John Wesley United Methodist Church in Belltown.

During a May 15 public hearing, the board voted unanimously to revisit the application during its Monday, June 5 meeting.

The testimony began with those in favor of the request, but not before board Chairman Dale Callaway asked those in attendance to raise their hands if they were for or against the proposal. An equal number of people – around 30 – raised their hand for both sides.

Representing the shelter, Georgetown attorney David Hutt said a shelter would not have a substantial adverse effect on neighboring and adjacent properties.

He said the plan is to refurbish the existing church, located near Five Points on a 2-acre parcel between Route 9 and Beaver Dam Road, and then build an additional dwelling that would house 18 – 24 people. The plans have yet to be finalized, but, he said, it’s hard to imagine how the use would not be the best fit for the old church.

Hutt then called Glenn Piper, a property appraiser from Landmark Associates, who, after evaluating the situation, said he saw no evidence that opening a shelter would affect the surrounding neighborhood.

Stretching from Five Points to Nassau Commons, Piper pointed to the commercial area immediately surrounding the church. He said the residential neighborhood of Henlopen Landing was too far away and property prices would not be affected.

Poultry houses, he said, now those would have a direct impact.

Janet Idema, Immanuel Shelter president, said a year-round emergency shelter would operate differently than the cold-weather Code Purple Shelter currently in existence near Rehoboth. She said guests would be screened and their stay could last from 30 to 90 days, instead of just overnight.

Father Max Wolf of St. George’s Chapel in Rehoboth said the shelter could be supported by the Community Resource Center. He said the region’s homeless should be treated with a little respect in dignity.

“It’s sad when we treat our homeless pets better than we treat our homeless people,” he said.

Testimony against the shelter came largely from folks living in the Henlopen Landing development, which sits across the street from the church property.

Kim Bartholomew said she and her daughter were scared about the possibility of the shelter.

“We live in a scary time as it is,” she said. “I just don’t want the facility near my home.”

Addressing the congestion that already exists in the Belltown neighborhood, Bartholomew said adding homeless people walking around was a bad idea.

“This is the worst idea for this area,” she said.

Carmelo Castorina said he came to the hearing in favor of the shelter being located in the church, but he said he changed his mind after listening to the testimony of shelter representatives. He said shelter representatives had ridiculed and insulted those with concerns and fears about the shelter.

Other property owners said if they had known about the public hearing further in advance, there would have been time to hire a property appraiser showing properties would be negatively affected. Some added that they had used a lot of their retirement funds to buy a house near the beach so they could relax, not worry about a homeless shelter in their backyard.

This is the second time the county’s board of adjustment has addressed a request by the shelter. In January 2016, the board denied its special-use exception request to operate a year-round homeless shelter on Hebron Road in West Rehoboth.

Delmarva Power request approved

Prior to the Belltown church hearing, the board unanimously approved a request by Delmarva Power, which was seeking a variance from the minimum buffer and landscape requirements associated with an expansion to its Midway Substation, south of Wawa on Route 1 in Lewes.

Jim Smith, Delmarva Power senior public affairs manager, cited three reasons for the request – safety, reliability and security. He said trees can cause power outages as they grow and provide a place to hide for people who might want to steal material or equipment.

Smith said the substation serves 3,000 to 4,000 customers, most of them, he said, commercial businesses along the Route 1 corridor. The original substation was installed in 1960 and the property where the expansion will go, which sits between the existing substation and Wawa, was purchased in 2015.

A preliminary site plan was approved by Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission with four conditions: the expansion would have to be surrounded by a perimeter fence; at least two signs must be posted on the fence identifying the property; lighting must be turned away from neighbors; and a final site plan would be subject to review.