Bring on the next hurdle.
Leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter were expressing thanks Wednesday for a City Commission vote late Tuesday night that gave preliminary approval for a permit to move the homeless shelter to a warehouse near the Douglas County Jail.
It was a victory, but in what has become one of the more contentious City Hall issues of the last few years, one victory may not be enough.
“I hope it doesn’t come to a lawsuit, but that is kind of the question of the day right now,” said Loring Henderson, shelter director.
It was a question that hung over the heads of commissioners, who did not decide the issue until minutes before midnight on Tuesday. At issue are covenants that have long been placed on the property at 3701 Franklin Park Circle. An attorney with PDO Investors, a Lawrence-based group that owns property near the site, has suggested the covenants will not allow a homeless shelter on the property.
Price Banks, a Lawrence attorney for the shelter, has said the concerns are “without merit,” and argues that the covenants are related to general appearance and aesthetics that the shelter can meet.
To commissioners, it sounded like the type of disagreement that may end up in court. But commissioners ultimately said it wasn’t their role to prohibit the shelter from moving forward based on covenants, which are a part of a private contract.
“My job, I thought, was to look at this strictly from a land-use perspective,” Mayor Mike Amyx said. “In the end, based on the changes they’re making, it met the requirements in our code.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that a new 125-bed shelter on the site is a slam dunk. Shelter leaders have said that about $3 million in funds will be needed for the project to be feasible.
The group has about $1.1 million in pledges, which has sparked optimism among fundraisers since a full-fledged campaign has not begun.
Whether a lawsuit would dampen any fundraising momentum is uncertain. Henderson, on Wednesday, did not want to go down that road.
“I’m always an optimist,” Henderson said. “We have gotten this far. I think the people on the other side are people of goodwill and will want to work this out.”
In other issues related to the shelter proposal:
• Commissioners asked several questions about why the shelter’s management plan was not tougher on guests who have broken rules. Commissioner Lance Johnson asked specifically why there wasn’t an immediate, permanent ban for people caught buying or selling drugs on the shelter site. The shelter’s current policy calls for a ban of up to one year.
“When you are working with people with addictions, you give them second chances,” Henderson said in response. “One chance and you are out doesn’t work with people who have addictions.”
• Commissioners confirmed that figuring out a way to add public transit service to the site was critical. But that issue did not receive much attention on Tuesday night. There have been concerns that large city buses may have difficulty entering and exiting busy Kansas Highway 10 near the site. Commissioners, though, said they want to look at options for improving that situation.
Commissioner Rob Chestnut said he wants to begin discussions with the county about how to improve public transportation in the area, which has been needed to serve the Douglas County Jail for years, he said.
“My sense is that we’ll be able to work those issues out,” Chestnut said.
• Henderson said a new shelter at the site could be operational within 18 months, depending on how fundraising proceeds and how the covenants issue is resolved.
“I wouldn’t want to be held to that,” Henderson said. “But since the building is already there, it won’t be a lengthy construction project. And the city is eager to have us move out of downtown and we are eager to move as soon as we can.”
Commissioners will have the special use permit for the shelter on their agenda next Tuesday for a second reading and to further refine details of the permit. That meeting begins at 6:35 p.m.