Immanuel Shelter has purchased the John Wesley United Methodist Church building in Belltown, but future uses for the building are up in the air as plans for a homeless shelter are argued in court.
Immanuel board President Janet Idema said she could not disclose the purchase price for the historic church, located on Route 9 in Lewes just west of Five Points.
“Right now, we own the building. Now we’re looking at options for utilizing it,” she said.
Immanuel is in a legal battle over a special-use exception request to use the building as a homeless shelter. Immanuel had been granted the exception by Sussex County Board of Adjustment, but that ruling was challenged in Delaware Superior Court. Judge Richard F. Stokes reversed the board’s decision on grounds that a homeless shelter does not meet the standard of a tourist home, as described in the original request. In his ruling, Stokes said a tourist home’s residents pay rent, which does not describe a homeless shelter.
Idema said that ruling is being challenged in Delaware Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, she said, Immanuel is considering other options, but at this point, an announcement is premature.
“It’s all very fluid,” Idema said.
Idema said Immanuel plans to preserve the building as much as possible. She said while the church needs work, it has good bones and is in reasonably good shape.
Idema said Immanuel still plans to operate a Code Purple shelter during the winter months, but the location is not yet decided. Immanuel has operated the shelter on Oyster House Road in Rehoboth Beach for the last several years, but Idema said that building is loaned to them by Faith United Methodist Church on a year-to-year basis.
Residents near the church opposed its use as a homeless shelter, citing the probability of increased panhandling near their homes, deterring prospective buyers and decreasing property values, as well as increasing traffic in an already congested area. However, Immanuel’s appraiser said property values were unlikely to decrease, and state transportation officials have said the traffic impact would be negligible.
The 41,000-square-foot church was built in 1946, with roots dating back to 1873. The church closed in 2007, when the congregation merged with two other churches into Faith United Methodist Church. Before Immanuel sought to build a shelter there, Revelation Craft Brewing had applied in 2016 to convert the church into a restaurant and brewery but that application was later withdrawn.