Supreme Court blocks Belltown homeless shelter

Immanuel plans on hold for historic church near Five Points
February 22, 2019

Immanuel Shelter's bid to establish a shelter at the former John Wesley United Methodist Church has hit a roadblock.

In a brief, one-page Feb. 18 ruling, Delaware Supreme Court Justice Gary Traynor affirmed a Superior Court decision denying the operation of a homeless shelter at the site near Five Points in Belltown outside Lewes.

“Immanuel Shelter is disappointed with the court’s ruling and is reviewing its options as it seeks to continue providing assistance to individuals experiencing homelessness in Sussex County,” said Immanuel Shelter Board President Janet Idema.

Last April, Immanuel purchased the church property and held a blessing service in May.

First approved June 19, 2017, by Sussex County Board of Adjustment, plans for the shelter were met with a lawsuit filed by three Henlopen Landing residents in Superior Court against the board of adjustment, Immanuel Shelter Inc. and Faith United Methodist Church Inc., previous owner of the church.

Last March, Superior Court reversed the board's decision, ruling that a homeless shelter does not fit the definition of a tourist home. That use was requested by the applicant, because there is no specific mention of a homeless shelter as a permitted use in AR-1, agricultural-residential, zoning, the zoning district for the 2-acre parcel containing the church.

“As it stands, the only way for a homeless shelter to be established in an AR-1 zone would be via amendment to the permitted uses for a special-use exception or, potentially, for the shelter to have a rental component in its operation,” Judge Richard Stokes wrote.

In the Superior Court ruling, Stokes said in a tourist home residents pay rent. “The residents of the shelter will not be required to pay rent in order to live at the shelter,” Stokes wrote.

County code defines a tourist home as a dwelling having no more than six rental rooms with no cooking facilities in guest rooms. Code also includes bed and breakfasts, rooming houses, boarding houses and lodging houses in the definition of a tourist home.

Stokes noted that county code states “uses not specially listed are prohibited.”

After a controversial board of adjustment public hearing with emotional testimony for and against the homeless shelter, the board approved a special-use exception application filed by Faith United Methodist Church for a homeless shelter at the church site on behalf of Immanuel Shelter.

During testimony, Immanuel Shelter attorney David Hutt said the shelter board's plan was to refurbish the existing Belltown church and then build an additional building that would house 18 to 24 people.

Immanuel Shelter – started in 2010 – operates a Code Purple shelter for the homeless in Rehoboth Beach at Faith U.M. Church Hall on Oyster House Road from Dec. 8 to April 1.

The nonprofit organization is working to establish a year-round emergency shelter in the area where vetted persons would stay from 30 to 90 days depending on their progress and commitment to shelter rules, Idema said. She said those in the shelter would sign a contract with stipulations that would include getting a job.

It's the third time Immanuel Shelter has suffered a setback. In addition to the two court rulings, on Jan. 25, 2016, the board of adjustment voted 4-1 to deny a special-use exception for a shelter on Hebron Road in West Rehoboth.

Church has roots back to 1873

John Wesley U.M. Church, built in 1946 with roots back to 1873, closed in 2007 and the congregation merged with two other churches into Faith United Methodist Church in Rehoboth Beach.