Zoning Bans the Good Samaritan
Housing news happens all across the country, but this week’s Rent Free is a little more California-centric. Our stories include:
- An L.A. judge stopping Beverly Hills from issuing any building permits (unless they add new housing) until the city comes into compliance with state housing law.
- California Forever releases the language of a ballot initiative legalizing the company’s plans to build a new city in rural Solano County.
- Neighborhood activists in Alexandria, Virginia, are suing to overturn the city’s recently passed zoning reforms.
But first, our lead story about zoning laws once again coming for the Good Samaritan.
Pastor Criminally Charged With Zoning Violations for Sheltering the Homeless
Since March 2023, Chris Avell’s church, Dad’s Place, in Bryan, Ohio, has been keeping its doors open 24/7 for anyone who might stop by to use the church’s kitchen, get food for themselves or their pets from its pantry, or join in church services.
When the homeless shelter next door is full, Dad’s Place will take in some of those people too. Avell considers all these activities a core part of his church’s mission. The city of Bryan, however, considers his sheltering of people an illegal, residential use of a commercially zoned property.
This past New Year’s Eve, when Avell was arriving at the church to preach that Sunday morning, a police officer served him with 18 criminal charges related to violations of the town’s zoning code. Avell pleaded not guilty to those charges earlier this month.
Churches’ charitable activities often don’t fit neatly into zoning codes’ definitions of commercial and residential uses. For that reason, they often get dinged with code violations for doing things like operating a soup kitchen in a residential area or sheltering people in a commercial zone.
The fact that churches are also serving the poor and homeless can make them a target of nuisance complaints from neighbors and extra scrutiny and enforcement from local officials as well.
Bryan’s decision to criminally charge Avell is nevertheless unusually punitive.
“It’s a rarity that a city and a mayor would press criminal charges against a church period. I’m not aware of a mayor anywhere in the country prosecuting a pastor for having his church open. That seems to be the very definition of religious discrimination,” says Jeremey Dys, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute who is representing Avell.
City officials hit Dad’s Place with an escalating series of complaints before it filed criminal charges.
In early November 2023, city police and fire personnel visited Dad’s Place, where they interrogated people inside and recorded a number of alleged violations of the zoning and fire code. They gave the church 10 days to fix the code violations and stop letting people use the church as a residence.
After those ten days had expired, the city’s zoning administrator also visited the church, where he observed more allegedly illegal residential activity including people sleeping in chairs and makeshift bedrooms and preparing food in the church’s kitchen. The administrator’s report recommended charges be filed against Avell.
Dys argues that the city is using an unfairly narrow definition of what counts as church activity to persecute Avell and Dad’s Place.
“It may not look like St. Paul’s cathedral, but it is in every sense a church,” he says. “Mayor [Carrie] Schlade has in her mind that churches meet at 10 a.m. to noon on a Sunday morning and then they lock the doors and go away for the rest of the week.”
The city objects to the idea that they’re discriminating against Dad’s Place.
“Pastor Avell never requested, nor was approval given, to use Dad’s Place as a residence or homeless shelter. The city enforces its zoning code equally against all. A church does not have special rights under the zoning code,” reads a city press release from last week.
A subsequent fire department investigation this month also discovered a gas leak and other fire code violations, says the press release.
Dys says that the church is eager to provide a safe environment but that city officials are unfairly targeting Dad’s place and that they are giving the city shifting demands on what needs to be done to the building. He notes that the pastor of the previous church that had occupied Dad’s Place’s building lived on site.
Attempts to negotiate with the city have gone nowhere, says Dys. “It’s been ‘kick everyone out and then we’ll talk’.”
L.A. Judge Says Beverly Hills Can’t Issue Non-Housing Building Permits Until It Complies with State Housing Law
Beverley Hills, California, property owners are the collateral casualties in a war between the city and activists suing over its failure to allow new housing construction.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge had blocked the city from issuing new buildin
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