LINCOLN CITY — City councilors dipped into emergency funds this week to back a $750,000 deal to house the city’s homeless population, but encountered stinging backlash and threats of legal action from powerful neighbors opposed to the idea.
Faced with a Jan. 21 deadline to close the purchase of a commercial building and two lots at 3554 NE Highway 101 or lose the earnest money, the council voted 6-1 Monday to press forward on the agreement with Helping Hands of Puyallup, Wash.
The agency, which operates housing and shelters for the homeless in Oregon and Washington, was selected last year from other aspiring providers to operate the 70-unit facility. Under the arrangement, Helping Hands would receive the deed to the $400,000 property plus a $350,000, no-interest loan to upgrade the building, subject to performance conditions.
The vote followed months of meetings to pave the way for a housing and treatment facility that would alleviate a growing homeless crisis and satisfy a top priority of residents, according to public surveys. State law authorizes cities to convey real property to nonprofit concerns in order to provide social services, according to city officials.
Councilors debated the controversial matter at their Jan. 13 meeting, acknowledging public concerns aired at a December planning commission hearing over a conditional use permit.
“Neighborhood safety is real important, but at the same time, we need to weigh that against the need,” remarked Councilor Rick Mark, who said local churches for the most part had failed to solve the issue. “You see the homeless people here, in the cold January nights and cold rain, living in the woods. That’s just not right.”
Councilor Judy Casper said the deal would serve families in crisis, and doing anything less would be “neglecting the people we represent.” Mitch Parsons called the vote a “somber decision” but added, “The community has been aching for a facility of this sort.”
Not everybody was inclined to tap into the city’s emergency funds, however. Councilor Riley Hoagland, who said he was once homeless, initially struggled with the price tag.
“That’s a lot of money for a project,” he stated before joining the majority. “Your passion speaks volumes, but $750,000 is beyond what I feel is comfortable for the city.”
Mayor Dick Anderson, the sole dissenter, cited other pressing concerns, such as the rising retirement costs for the city’s public employees. He also questioned the city’s role in “venturing off” into welfare issues.
“I don’t find social services in the city charter,” he argued. “I find sewers, water and police. At the end of the day, I’m concerned about a financial drawdown on the reserves, and I struggle as to where to put funds to help a larger group of citizens.”
The vote was quickly challenged by opponents who intended to testify at Monday’s meeting but were surprised when the council elected to cancel a scheduled public hearing on the matter. Representing nearby commercial property owners, attorney Byron Farley criticized the key elements of the decision and threatened legal action against the city.
Farley complained that the city attorney had changed the definition of the use from “transitional housing” to non-specific language in order to shoehorn the facility into a conditional use permit. The substitution, he warned, could limit the city’s ability to impose state health and safety standards on the shelter.
“The goalposts have been moved because he said it’s just a label and it doesn’t matter,” Farley charged, mocking city attorney Richard Appicello’s reasoning and threatening to take the matter to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.
Apartment complex owner Thomas Barnes, who traveled from California to testify at Monday’s canceled hearing, cited the council’s own “confusion” over the shelter deal and blasted city officials for calling off the public hearing.
“You changed the game today when you took this item off the agenda,” he stated. “According to your city manager, that’s irrelevant because you’ve approved the conditional use permit, and now it doesn’t make any difference what the public thinks. I beg to differ, and that’s why we’ve retained legal counsel.”
The owner of the adjacent Ashley Inn motel, Jitesh Desai, cited concerns over safety and cleanliness at the proposed shelter. He claimed shelter residents would be able to peer out at “women and children in our pool area” and claimed other businesses in the affected stretch of Highway 101 were denied the chance to speak out on the matter.
“This shouldn’t be the face of Lincoln City,” he objected.
After the room cleared and the council finished other business, the city attorney dismissed the objections but encouraged councilors to extend the closing date and “pay whatever additional earnest money necessary to do that” in order to resolve the protests. He recalled a similar case where he previously worked that took years to settle.
The council retired to executive session but made no decision on their return, other than to adjourn the meeting.
Voting Monday to enter the agreement with Helping Hands were councilors Mark, Casper, Hoagland, Parsons, Diane Kusz and Diana Hinton. Mayor Anderson voted “nay.”