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Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board: People's Church goes 0-for-2

Both requests from People's Church were denied Wednesday.

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board voted unanimously to deny variance requests that would have allowed for an expansion doubling the size of the current church - and also unanimously denied a Conditional Use Permit for the operation of a church based on the proposed expansion.

"As a church, I believe they do good work," said JPB member Greg Negard, "but I don't see it as a homeless shelter."

People's Church, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, shelters the homeless despite not having any designation or authorization as a homeless shelter.

"From the city's standpoint, there shouldn't be sleeping in there," Bill Bartholomew, the Bemidji building official, told the JPB.

The Rev. Bob Kelly, the pastor at People's Church, said following the meeting that the church is considering its options.

"We're not giving up," he said.

Kelly said People's Church hopes to lead by example. He noted that the first schools and the first hospitals were started by churches.

"This is a tradition that we are part of," he said.

The People's Church is in violation of a cease-and-desist order that came from the city in August, Bartholomew said. Then, City Manager John Chattin wrote a letter to Kelly stating that People's Church was violating a building code in which no sleeping is allowed in assembly buildings.

"I don't see how this board could set the precedent of granting a CUP for anyone who is in violation of the law, said JPB member Becky Livermore.

Bartholomew inspected the building in July and found several building code violations.

"The church did make an attempt to bring, as best it could, the things I thought were life-safety issues into compliance," he said. "It's pretty hard to go into existing buildings like that and try to bring them up to code."

Mel Milender, the planning administrator for the joint planning office, said he recognizes that the services provided by People's Church are needed in the Bemidji area.

But, he added, on-site supervision also is needed.

"Any homeless shelter that has people staying overnight needs to have 24/7 supervision," he said.

Milender also said he was struck by some of the complaints from neighboring residents, who have said the church brings unwarranted problems into the neighborhood.

"The neighbors, they're good people too," said JPB member Ron Johnson. "If this were a rental (property), we'd take immediate action."

JPB chairman Tim Mountain said the issue was difficult for him as a faithful man. Mountain said People's Church members are feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor.

They are serving what they believe to be the "greater law," Mountain said.

The two votes by the JPB authorized joint planning staff to prepare ordinances containing the "findings of fact" needed to defend its actions in court, if necessary. JPB attorney Troy Gilchrist recommended the ordinance, rather than a direct denial, at the onset of the meeting before the JPB made clear its preference of action.

The ordinances will be considered for approval at a special meeting later this month.

"This board has no quarrel with the mission of any church, and this board recognizes the need for homeless (services)," Livermore said. "The decision we have to make is about land use."