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Planning looks at options for mandated homeless shelter zoning

POSTED August 10, 2010 10:33 p.m.

By August 2011, the City of Turlock must address the lack of homeless shelters in town, according to 2007’s Senate Bill 2.

The Turlock Planning Commission took up the issue Thursday night, setting out a strategy to draft the expectedly contentious plan with as little trouble as possible.

“We need to be prepared, and whether we choose to do it or somebody mandates us to do it, this is what we’ve got to go,” said Turlock Planning Commissioner Victor Pedroza.

The bill requires all cities which do not already have a homeless shelter to designate an area of town where the construction of homeless shelters is allowed by right – without the presently required Planning Commission and City Council approval. For example, shelters could be allowed in all industrial zones citywide, or in a zoning overlay showing shelters are only allowed in a specific geographic area of Turlock.

The City of Turlock held a community meeting in February to begin soliciting feedback on SB 2. During that meeting every group suggested drafting a zoning overlay rather than picking a specific zoning type. All suggested overlays centered in or near downtown Turlock. The smallest suggestion was just a narrow strip between C and D streets, while the largest was a zigzagging overlay stretching from Golden State Boulevard to Highway 99, all south of Main Street.

According to Turlock Planning Manager Debbie Whitmore, the chosen area will likely not be the largest or the smallest suggested area, but instead somewhere in-between.Turlock can’t just pick a tiny area, as SB2 requires the area have enough vacant land to accommodate the total need. In Turlock’s case, which has between 400 and 500 homeless persons a year, shelters would likely need to be able to accommodate about 100 individuals, Whitmore said. Before the City of Turlock can determine a zoning overlay, the Planning Commission will first look to draft a set of design standards – with some help from the public.

“We’re going to have to go out and begin to engage the community in that discussion,” Whitmore said.

Cities are allowed to implement some design standards on shelter development under SB2, including shelter density, aesthetics, size, and even some operation requirements. 

Until a set of standards are developed for shelter construction, the city cannot determine how many structures could reasonably be built in a tract of land.The Planning Commission will draft the design guidelines, then meet with the City Council to ensure both legislative bodies are in agreement, and then begin the search for a specific overlay zone which meets SB2’s requirements and is amenable to Turlockers.

While the document isn’t due until August 2011, Turlock must have a plan solidified in the next four to five months, in order to ensure it makes the deadline. The bill does not require the city to provide any funding for a shelter, merely to remove bureaucratic hurdles which prevent homeless service providers from building emergency housing.

“It does open the door, and if somebody wants to build they’ll have a place to build it,” said Turlock Planning Commissioner Elvis Dias.

SB2 does grant the option of actually constructing and operating a shelter, rather than creating a zoning area where shelters are allowed by right, but the City of Turlock’s discussions with the City of Merced and the City of Patterson to build a regional shelter have thus far been fruitless.

If the City of Turlock opts to forego coming into compliance with SB2, the city will face lawsuits, will become ineligible for state Housing and Community Development grants, and would no longer receive transportation funds, once Senate Bill 375 goes into effect in about four years.The state is not funding the development of SB 2 compliance plans, despite the costs of amending zoning ordinances.

“I’ll tell you, I’m tired of this (unfunded mandate) stuff to be quite honest,” said Planning Commission Chairman Mike Brem. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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