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People's Church gets split decision

Trena Wiley speaks in support of People's Church during a public hearing Thursday night in front of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Commission at Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

People's Church did not receive an endorsement for its proposed expansion, but it did earn support for continued operations as a church and homeless shelter.

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Commission, in a six-hour meeting, held two public hearings Thursday night on People's Church. The first was on variances needed for an expansion that would double the size of the church building. The second was on a conditional-use permit that would allow operations as a church, which by its definition includes services for the homeless.

The JPC voted to recommend denial of the expansion application - but left an option for People's Church to revise its plan prior to the March 11 meeting of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, which will make the final decision.

More than 20 people addressed the JPC during the public hearings, with supporters outnumbering those opposed.

Roberta Pacheko told how she came to Bemidji with her daughter and no money and ended up, initially, at People's Church.

"They gave me hope and things are good now," said Pacheko, noting that she now has a job and a place to live. "Without them, I don't know where I'd be."

The Rev. Bob Kelly, the pastor at People's Church, told the JPC that the church aims to reach out and embrace those in need.

"We don't set up walls between us and the people we serve," he said. "We want to know the people in front of us. That's our ultimate goal."

Four variances were required to allow the expansion, in which the People's Church, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, would double in size and add a full kitchen, sleeping facilities and showered bathrooms.

Three of the four variances -an 18-foot front-yard setback, a 9-foot side-yard setback and a 15-spot parking space variance - were accepted by the JPC, but commissioners could not support a 12 percent impervious surface variance.

Kelly said the church plans to utilize a "green roof," a roof of a building that contains vegetation and soil to help capture runoff.

Commissioner Jan Heuer voiced support for at least considering some impact of the green roof.

"I don't want to ignore emerging technology," she said.

But, as pointed out by joint planning office Planning Administrator Mel Milender, the ordinances do not include allowances for green roofs or other "green" features.

"We have not created that equation for this climate in this community," he said. "It's on our radar, but it's just one of those issues that we haven't broached yet."

Additionally, Milender said, studies include varying amount of pervious improvements.

The public hearing and ultimate vote on the CUP followed the decision on denying the expansion application.

The heart of the CUP discussion centered around the safety of those using the church after hours.

People's Church does not now have anyone supervising activities 24/7, but does plan to have staff on-site 24/7 if the expansion goes forward, Kelly said. Also, the church has volunteer responders on call at all hours in case issues arise.

Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson, in a letter to the JPC, said he was unable to support the People's Church requests.

"I believe that the People's Church board and the people who are involved have made tremendous efforts in their attempt to identify what their mission is or should be," he wrote. "However ... I do not believe they are providing a safe setting for parishioners who attend the church or for the clients they are also attempting to serve."

Those opposed to the People's Church requests consisted of neighboring property owners who said the church brings unwanted problems to the area, including thefts, vandalism, threatening behavior, intoxicated individuals and drug activity.

"I feel granting the variances would even further those problems," said Dale Thompson, who owns property that he rents out.

Josiah Larson, an Iraq war veteran, said People's Church supported him throughout his deployment and subsequent return 16 months ago.

He cautioned the board against listening to rumors.

"We must look at the facts," he said.

Commissioners struggled with the decision as they tried to equally consider the concerns of area residents and the needs of the homeless in Bemidji.

Voting 5-3, the JPC recommended approval of the CUP with 14 conditions. Voting in favor were commissioners Janice Moberg, Genevieve Lowry, Richard Slinkman, Heuer and Swenson. Opposed were Matthew Dyrdahl, George Stowe and Clark Chambers.

"It's far from ideal ... I'm probably learning towards this, but the safety issue has to be dealt with," Moberg said. "If someone froze to death under the bridge or broke into somewhere else to stay alive... "