Zoning application submitted for homeless facility in Bonita Springs

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— After five years of holding his breath, Vann Ellison, president and chief executive officer of St. Matthew’s House, can exhale.

The zoning application for a homeless facility in Bonita Springs has been filed with the zoning board. A St. Matthew’s House at the old Causeway Lumbar site on Old 41 Road is now one small step closer to being a controversial reality.

Ellison said the Planned Urban Development (PUD) application was filed last week after a near two-month delay. He said he wanted to ensure the community had enough time to voice their views.

“We wanted to make sure the needs of the community were served and being met,” said Ellison, who has received received personal threats over the proposed plans. “It feels like the necessary step to bring the community together to provide for the needs of the poor.”

Ellison filed a PUD so he can choose the specific uses of the property. This will allow for mixed use, or both commercial and residential. In the application he also requested for the social services use, a right that is not currently allowed in the land’s “light industrial” zoning.

Ellison said much of the contention surrounding the proposed facility in Bonita Springs was without any understanding of his plan.

“Now, there are real, concrete plans,” Ellison said.

But Konrad Schultz, a vocal opponent to a homeless facility, disagrees.

Schultz and other members of Concerned Citizens of Bonita -- a committee formed by Spanish Wells residents - worry about the size, scale and impact the shelter could have on the community. The proposed facility will be adjacent to Spanish Wells.

Schultz said the application does not accurately reflect what Ellison had initially publicly proposed.

“We heard their plan to have 60 beds in a facility and it was interesting to note that the size and scale are now for a 120 bed facility,” he said.

Ellison calls Schultz’s comment a misunderstanding. Though Ellison spoke publicly about a 60-bed facility, he said the application must allow for more beds in case the need grows in the community.

“The application never said 60 beds. What we said was we will build for 60 at this time,” Ellison said.” We just asked for the opportunity to build 120 beds so we have the capacity to respond to those (possibly growing) needs without having to go back and amend the PUD.”

Schultz also said that application boasts an additional 30 units of long-term transitional shelter on the proposed property.

Based on his experience with the St. Matthew’s House project in East Naples, Ellison knows the community need grows. Nine years after the East Naples facility was constructed in 1994, a transitional housing facility was constructed.

Though Ellison said he can’t afford to build efficiency units right now, he wants to allow for the opportunity.

“It’s prudent to apply for an additional 30 units (at the proposed Bonita Springs location) so that it’s a viable possibility,” Ellison said.

Even with the application filed, however, a St. Matthew’s House in Bonita Springs is still a long way off.

John Dulmer, community development director with the City of Bonita Springs, is currently reviewing the application with his staff for sufficiency, a process that they have 30 days to complete. From there, if there are any questions or information is lacking in the application, a letter is sent to the applicant who then has 60 days to respond.

Dulmer said on average three letters are sent back and forth for a PUD request.

Once the application is deemed sufficient, a staff report is prepared and a recommendation is made. From there, the case goes before the zoning board, where staff, the applicant and those in the community can share their opinions.

Schultz said he and some residents in the neighborhoods of Marbella, Monterra, Mediterra, as well as the Constitution Business Park and Bonita Business Park will be at that hearing.

“We will be fully represented at that occasion,” he said. “We are all prepared to exercise whatever legal options there are.”

After the hearing, which could take up to three weeks to be set-up from the time the zoning staff recommendation is made, the zoning board offers their recommendation. Then, regardless if the board suggests it be approved or denied, the case is given a first reading before City Council.

“City Council can’t even deny it at that point,” Nelson said. “It’s part of the process. Denying it at the first reading is like denying someone the right to a fair trial.”

At the second reading before City Council only those who spoke at the zoning hearing can speak. After the second reading, council members have the right to make a decision.

“I just hope that Council is patient and weighs the information placed before them,” Nelson said. “All though we have pre-conceived notions concerning homelessness, the community needs to conduct itself in as much of a professional manner as possible to judge this right.”

A lot is riding on the approval too. Ellison does not yet have possession of the land at the former Causeway Lumbar on Old 41 Road.

Even though the $2.6 million price tag has been met through private donations and fundraising, the contract stipulates that Bonita Springs City Council must first approve the site. If approved, Ellison has 20 days to close on the contract.

Ellison also said he has currently spent $150,000 on the project. The money has been spent on the engineering, the two phases of inspections and “all the due diligence needed to close on a major project.”

While guesses and rumors are spreading like wildfire in the community, there is no way to know exactly what the outcome will be for the application.

“That’s in the hands of God and City Council at this time,” Ellison said. “ We’ve done our part continue to put information out there and to build a stronger consensus in the community.”

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