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Commission strikes city’s sites for the homeless; Advocates pledge to continue their efforts; city staff have option of selecting third site

Ralph Brown and Riley Armstrong of the City of Roswell Planning and Zoning Commission join other commission members Tuesday night in voting against variances for two city properties that would have allowed the development of a homeless facility. The decisions were unanimous. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Members of the City of Roswell Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to reject the variance requests the city applied for on two city properties that would have allowed advocates for the homeless to create a facility or tent city for some of the estimated 182 people in the city who don’t have a place to live.

The movement to find a location in Roswell where homeless people can live temporarily will continue, vow members of the Homeless Coalition, including Shaun Wigley, at podium, and Marcus Green, behind him, who spoke at a Tuesday meeting about possible city properties for that purpose. Business owner Kerry Moore stands in line for her turn to speak in favor of one of sites proposed. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Members of the Roswell Homeless Coalition expressed their continued commitment to the cause after two separate votes by the commission rejected the city’s applications.

“All I heard was one big ‘But,’” said Marcus Green of Harvest Ministries and the Homeless Coalition. “We want to help the homeless but not here, not there, not in our backyard, not on our watch. We want to help the homeless, but let’s kick the can down the road for another year or two. I can’t give up. … I have no choice. … I deal with them everyday, so I can’t give up.”

Shaun Wigley, vice president of the Homeless Coalition, added, “This was just one step in the process. You know, we didn’t pick the places that get to be there. We are just hoping for a place. This in no way changes our desire to find a solution. … We are just going to keep plugging away. There has to be a solution.”

About 60 people attended the meeting at the Roswell Museum and Art Center to consider the temporary, 30-month variances requested for the two properties: an existing Parks and Recreation Department office on East 12th Street near North Virginia Avenue, identified by the Roswell City Council as the preferred site, and a secondary site south of the Wool Bowl near Grand Avenue and East College Boulevard.

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After hearing 26 comments from the public, commissioners exchanged a few remarks before their votes. Commission member Toby Gross asked why the city was choosing to apply for variances, reading from city codes that indicated variances are meant to be given if a piece of property is somehow topographically or geographically incapable of meeting zoning codes without causing undue hardship.

Morris conceded that the situation was unique.

“That definition of a variance doesn’t contemplate this type of situation,” he said. “There is no situation anywhere in the code that contemplates this type of use in this particular location. … There is nothing that says we can’t have a temporary variance.”

The vote for the variance for the parcel near the Wool Bowl was rejected by five commission members, Jesse McDaniel, Shirley Childress, Ralph Brown, Riley Armstrong and Toby Gross. David Storey was absent and Kent Taylor, a New Mexico Military Institute employee, abstained, given that NMMI owns property nearby. The East 12th Street property variance was rejected by all six commission members present.

Several members of the public gave their thoughts on the topic. For the Wool Bowl property, two spoke in favor, although one of the two, Marcus Green of Harvest Ministries and the Homeless Coalition, said it was not the site he preferred.

Six people, including business owners, property owners and a lawyer representing the owner of a business office complex, spoke in opposition to the variances. They cited various worries and concerns, including possible devalued property sites, the large number of youth and women who use the nearby athletic fields,  the lack of any bathrooms or other facilities on the parcel, and general concerns about the type of people who would stay at the site. The city also received four written letters in opposition, city staff indicated.

The City Council’s preferred site, the Parks and Recreation office on East 12th Street, received more public support than the previous site, with eight people expressing their hope that the variance would be approved.

But it also received more opposition, with 10 people speaking against the proposed variance.

Several nearby business owners, including representatives with Cattle Baron Restaurant, Power Block Gym and AWC Propane, said that they did not want a site due to concern about how it would affect employees, customers and property values.

Several speakers said a site close to Main Street and downtown business would hurt tourism, and they warned of the possibility of crime, panhandling and creating an “eyesore” that would cause people to avoid the area.

Larry Fresquez, who said he has assisted homeless people for years, told the commission that he represented an investor who owns property from Eighth Street to 12th Street, including property surrounding the proposed site.

“The investors have gone to great pains to clean up those properties by removing the Ice House, which was at the encouragement of the city due to the homeless population living there,” he said. “And also the four houses right next to the Parks and Recreation building, which should have been removed 20 years ago, were also removed because they were being used by the homeless and they were removed at great expense.”

He said most property owners within a 100 feet of the site were against using it as a homeless facility, although he added that he was unaware of what one property owner, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, thought. The reasons he gave included worries about lowered property values and concerns for the safety of people using nearby bike or walk trails.

Homeless advocates said that they found irony in the oft-repeated statement that people did not want the homeless near their businesses, homes, schools or recreation areas.

Green said the homeless are indeed living near them, having tents or encampments near Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, behind Hastings and close to a NMMI track, in the Enchanted Hills subdivision and underneath the bridges of city recreational trails.

City staff could appeal the commission decisions by noon Thursday, and they could also follow the option that Morris told the commission that the Roswell City Council provided, the ability to select a third site for a homeless facility should the first two choices not prove viable.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.