Roseville Planning Commission backs church shelters

A number of Roseville Planning Commission members barely hid their annoyance with two items brought before the commission at its Dec. 5 meeting.

The commission was taking up requests from two churches, New Life Presbyterian and Roseville Lutheran, for interim use permits to allow the places of worship to continue providing temporary winter shelter for people and families experiencing homelessness. 

It was never much of a question whether the commission would support the churches’ work.

Though both had been working with Project Home, an Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul program, for a number of years to provide temporary shelter — New Life has done so for a decade — the city fire department and planning division recently became aware of the program and decided the city needed to address the “non-typical” church uses. Each church will shelter 20-24 people, per night, for a month at a time. 

City Planner Thomas Paschke introduced the items and was clear city staffers supported the permits for the churches. 

He was also adamant that since providing shelter was considered by the city to be a non-traditional and uncommon use for the churches, that something at the municipal level needed to be done because of potential safety issues. However, neither permit required the churches to make changes to their facilities.

Commission member Jim Bill was unsympathetic to Paschke’s assertions.

“I’d beg to differ that it’s not a traditional use of a church,” he said, going on to say that he felt city staffers had made an “underhanded move” in requiring the churches to get approval for the shelter work without a broader community discussion.

Commission members were also concerned about the permitting costs the churches were brought to bear. Between an open house requirement to discuss the interim use, escrow related to the event and the permit application fee itself, each place of worship was on the hook for at least $1,775.

“I think this is an onerous thing to put on the churches to do,” said commissioner and city council member-elect Wayne Groff.

 

‘Showing Christ’s love’

Maryfran Moen, church administrator for New Life Presbyterian, spoke to the commission and said the fire department had been aware of the churches’ participation in Project Home for a number of years.

“The safety of our guests is paramount,” she said. “You don’t try to get people out of homelessness and put them at risk.”

She also said providing shelter was indeed a historic use of the church — it’s “just showing Christ’s love,” she said, adding the work is a tangible way of promoting New Life’s mission.

Project Home Director Sara Liegl said the program works throughout Ramsey County and hammered home the impact it has, noting that some of the kids sheltered at New Life or Roseville Lutheran attend Roseville Area High School. 

“These are our families,” she said.

Liegl explained that much of the program’s work happens in St. Paul, which does require some oversight though it does not charge the churches involved any administrative fees. In fact, she said, St. Paul receives some funding from federal Emergency Solutions Grants and funnels it back into the shelter program.

On the question of the permitting fees, Paschke said neither city staff nor the commission had the power to waive them, though the city council could.

 

‘Trying to do their jobs’

Some commission members were weary of any city oversight of the churches.

“I think that our attempt to regulate programs within churches is a slippery slope,” said commission member James Daire. “Once we allow this to be regulated, what’s next?”

Commission member Peter Sparby questioned the logic behind the need for the permit, which does not require action on the churches’ parts, as well as the rationale for bringing the items before the commission.

“They’re compliant and they have to go through this process because it’s non-typical,” he said.

Commission chair Robert Murphy struck a more conciliatory tone.

While Murphy said giving the churches the commission’s blessings was a “no-brainer,” he added, “rather than seeing the tentacle of city government reaching inside the church I see a fire department and community development department trying to do their jobs.”

The permits as presented allowed the churches a single month in which to provide shelter — February for Roseville Lutheran and April for New Life — and Bull got backing to amend both permits to allow for 30 days of consecutive sheltering or 60 days total, non-consecutively, no specific months attached.

With the unanimous approval of permits for both churches, Murphy said Groff can carry on his work related to the sheltering with the city council, which is scheduled to take up the permits at its first meeting of the year on Jan. 7.

 

–Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813.

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