Council: Rochester mishandling SOS zoning enforcement

By Kyle Stucker 
Posted Sep 25, 2018 at 10:12 PM Updated Sep 26, 2018 at 10:24 AM  

ROCHESTER — Several members of the Rochester’s City Council say they’re not happy with how the city has handled cease and desist orders served to SOS Recovery Community Organization and Dover Adult Learning Center over a zoning issue.

From the lack of communication with City Council before the order temporarily shut down SOS and DALC Friday afternoon and Saturday, to the city’s lack of advance warning and deadlines to the organizations themselves, city councilors say they’re upset and hope city staff are more transparent moving forward.

“I want to get to the bottom of what happened and why this happened,” said Ward 2 Councilor Elaine Lauterborn, expressing concern that the order was served at the end of the week at a time when few people were around. “I think the whole thing needs looking into.”

“It blew my mind,” said fellow Ward 2 Councilor Sandra Keans, who is also a state representative.

Even though city charter and state statutes don’t dictate code enforcement actions must be approved by city councilors, Ward 5 Councilor Robert Gates said he felt City Council should’ve been included because SOS has been the subject of several recent meetings, including one in which councilors increased the funding the city allocates to support SOS’ nonmedical recovery center.

“I do think we should’ve been involved in this, whether through an open City Council meeting, an emergency City Council meeting or a nonpublic (session),” said Gates.

SOS and DALC both utilize spaces within First Church Congregational at 63 South Main St. Since mid July, the city has been looking into whether SOS and DALC’s various programs and activities constitute a change in use for the church, according to City Manager Blaine Cox.

SOS and DALC have utilized space within First Church for 2 and 10 years, respectively. Other organizations also use rooms within the church, but they weren’t served cease and desist orders Friday afternoon.

Cox has said city staff served the orders independent of his office because SOS and DALC hadn’t outlined, as requested by the city, their usage of First Church in a proper version of the city’s project narrative form. The organizations had submitted a written statement in lieu of the form earlier this month, and representatives from each said they thought it was sufficient because they heard nothing back from the city.

As the organizations each face another cease and desist order Wednesday if they don’t submit proper project narrative forms, city councilors say the city needs to handle the matter more diplomatically given the populations the organizations serve.

“I think the communication could have been handled a lot better, that’s for sure,” said Ward 4 Councilor Dave Walker. “This is a straight-up simple … violation that needs to get taken care of. It should have been handled differently.”

Councilors also say overall communication needs improvement on all sides as things progress.

“There’s a lot of issues in what’s being requested and what’s being given,” said Deputy Mayor Ray Varney. “It seems there’s some opportunity for improvement from both (sides).”

Varney added that he wished city officials had notified City Council shortly after the cease and desist orders were served and that he doesn’t believe city councilors needed to be notified ahead of time because they “have no part in the decision making.”

Several elected officials and social service agency leaders from throughout the area expressed dissatisfaction with the city’s actions on Facebook and Twitter. Like several of Rochester’s city councilors, a number of those individuals also posted that they believe the city of Rochester has larger issues to focus on and should be careful when potentially shutting down agencies that combat the region’s opioid crisis, rising homelessness and other issues.

“As a Board member of DALC and a strong supporter of @SOS_RCO, I urge Rochester to treat the church, these organizations, and the people they serve with respect, not threats,” tweeted state Sen. David Watters, D-Dover. “A community cannot attract jobs and businesses unless it embraces these services.”

SOS, DALC, First Church and the city are reportedly continuing their talks about the form and city’s zoning concerns as Wednesday’s deadline approaches.

SOS Director John Burns has said his organization has hired a land use attorney to assist them in the process. He said he was unable to provide updates about his agency’s project narrative form Tuesday.

Ward 3 City Councilor Tom Abbott said he’s withholding his judgment of the city’s actions and zoning concerns until final decisions are made, however, he said he’d like to see the city ultimately find a way to “make it work” with SOS, DALC and First Church.

Councilor Ralph Torr, who came under fire for his remarks about the nature of addiction before he voted against giving SOS more money this summer, said he didn’t have anything to say Tuesday because he was out of town all weekend and had no knowledge of what had transpired.

Not all city councilors could be reached for comment before this story went to press.

While Gates was upset City Council wasn’t kept in the loop, he did say he agreed with the city’s decision Monday to impose a deadline of Wednesday. He said the city must firmly stand its ground and that he doesn’t believe a two-day turnaround is unreasonable given that the sides have been in communication about the usage of First Church since July.

“You can’t let these things go on,” said Gates.

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