After years of planning, the City of Turlock is on the cusp of creating an area of town where homeless shelters can be built without the red tape which usually stymies such projects.
The Turlock City Council preliminarily approved a plan Tuesday night which would allow shelters to be constructed with minimal permitting requirements and no public hearings in a zone generally bounded by Lander Avenue on the West, A Street on the northwest, S. Center Street on the northeast, and F Street on the southeast. A peninsula stretches from that zone south along Lander to Linwood, and another peninsula travels southeast five blocks between Golden State Boulevard and First Street. The zone includes no residential or downtown core areas.
For a council with a start-stop relationship with shelters since at least 1992, the decision was long overdue, according to Mayor John Lazar.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Lazar said. “There’s really a need. We see it every day in the parks, the alleys, the doorways downtown.”
Tuesday’s action was driven by 2007’s State Senate Bill 2, which requires all cities to create an area where shelters are allowed. Turlock did not comply, as shelters were either defined as non-permitted or required a Conditional Use Permit in each zone.
The bill does not require Turlock to construct a shelter. And, once Turlock is home to 200 beds for the homeless, the permitting process will expire, as Turlock is only required to house its fair share of the homeless.
“Beyond any legal requirement, we’re talking about something that’s right to do,” Councilman Bill DeHart said.
While the new process will not require Planning Commission or City Council review, the plan does feature stringent permitting guidelines, as allowed within the confines of SB2. Shelters are limited in how many beds they may hold, how they must look, and how much parking they must have. Security guards and comprehensive security and management plans are required, as are plans for crating animals owned by homeless guests.
“Here we are with a solution that I think addresses a lot of concerns,” said Chris Kiriakou, member of the Turlock Gospel Mission Board. “We’re not just opening up an area to a shelter that will be sited without standards.”
Kiriakou went on to say that the “rigorous” standards, the drafting of which involved representatives from Turlock’s police, fire, housing, and planning departments, address issues that residents may associate with some past shelters – like Turlock’s ill-fated 400 B St. Emergency Cold Weather Shelter.
The measure passed by a 4-1 vote, with Vice Mayor Amy Bublak casting the lone no vote.
While Bublak generally supported the measure, she wanted a slightly smaller zoning area as requested by some local homes and businesses through letters sent to the council. Her suggestion of adopting the smaller zone was not discussed by the council.
While some businesses opposed the zone – none of which were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting – Turlock Chamber of Commerce CEO Sharon Silva supported the measure wholeheartedly.
“People are concerned, literally, that if we build a shelter more people will come,” Silva said. “But the truth is if we don’t build a shelter and get more services, more people will still come.”
Silva said a shelter would separate the truly homeless from the criminal element which hides in their midst, making it easier to deal with both those who need assistance – and those who do not.
Final approval still needed
Despite council’s action Tuesday, the plan does not yet go into effect.
As the zoning change requires an ordinance amendment, the council will vote on the matter for a second time on July 26. That final reading, while required, is largely a formal matter; council rarely discusses such final readings, merely commences with a roll-call vote for final approval.
The ordinance must also be approved by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The timeline on the review remains hazy, and depends largely on whether the department takes issue with any elements of the ordinance.
According to Turlock Deputy Development Services Director Debbie Whitmore, HCD has already told Turlock it must be prepared to defend a few specific areas of the plan, mainly related to the management and security plan.
“While it allows you to establish what the requirements are, we may have gone a little beyond what the state law was intending,” Whitmore said.
But Whitmore said Turlock will have a good chance at success in defending its ordinance, as the city can show similar requirements have previously ensured facilities’ success.
While a few final steps remain, members of the Turlock City Council are already looking ahead to the day a year-round shelter opens its doors in Turlock.
“This is one of these moments where we move forward, and now the ball is in Chris [Kiriakou] and some other people’s court, and they will move forward building facilities,” Councilman Forrest White said.
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