Oil City Zoning Board Approves Homeless Shelter to Use Group Home Definition – With Conditions

| February 20, 2019

OIL CITY, Pa. (EYT) – A recent application for a homeless shelter in Oil City was one for the books of the Oil City Zoning Code.

“In the forty years I’ve been here, it has never come up,” said Rick Cook, Oil City Zoning Officer.  “The board had to be careful because homeless shelters have various rights, but we just don’t have anything in our ordinance.” 

“It really was a homeless shelter that wanted to be given the green light as a group home.”

The request, filed by the non-profit Emmaus Haven of Venango County, was for a 16-bed home in the Our Lady Help of Christians Church parish hall at 580 Colbert Avenue. The hall is being sold by the Erie Diocese.

“They had to come into a hearing about a month ago for an interpretation to prove that their use made the definition of a group home in our ordinance,” continued Cook.  “They had three hours of testimony, and the hearing was continued until yesterday (Tuesday)  because our solicitor asked for some time, so we could come up with some conditions, so the board would consider a positive interpretation, and they would also place some conditions.”

Zoning Board members Matt Caldwell, Bill Hopkins, and Michael McDonald voted unanimously to approve the interpretation following an executive session.

“It was an interpretation of the zoning ordinance because we have nothing in our ordinances regarding homeless shelters, and they applied for designation as a group home,” Cook explained.

“There are large differences between group homes and homeless shelters. Conditions proposed included screening, security, and things of that nature. They accepted them all even before the continued hearing. (We) received a letter from their attorney that they accepted all of the conditions”  

They came in on Tuesday, and the board went into executive session. Twenty minutes later they came out and voted unanimously to interpret it as a group home but conditions would have to apply, and Emmaus Haven, the sponsor of the home, would have to agree to all of the conditions.

“The impact on the residential area was perhaps the most controversial aspect. Traditionally, homeless shelters are in commercial districts.  In fact, Emmaus Haven runs a shelter in Franklin in the commercial district.  The reason they were interested in this particular residential area is that the Diocese of Erie is closing a number of churches, and there are 16 buildings in our region that are vacant, and they are paying insurance and utilities on them, so the Catholic Church wants to get rid of these buildings.  The opportunity here would be a former church hall, including a commercial kitchen and all of that.”

“The conditions placed are mostly there for the safety of the neighborhood and the residents when they go in there. Emmaus Haven will have to do background checks, fingerprinting. Nobody convicted of a violent crime, a certified pedophile, or convicted of abuse person will be permitted.”

“We’re going to amend our ordinance for homeless shelters because we saw it was lacking. It was the group’s burden to prove to the board that it should be considered a group home, and I think with the conditions they accepted the board obviously came to the conclusion that they would agree to view it as a group home as long as the conditions are followed.”

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