The Lamoille Community House in Hyde Park will open as a 24-hour shelter on Friday, Nov. 27 at 4 p.m.
This violates local zoning rules, but leaders say they have no choice.
The county’s only homeless shelter has served residents overnight for a few years, but staff said during a pandemic that’s not good enough — people need a safe place to stay all day, every day, to lessen the risk of spreading COVID-19.
The shelter, in some form, was planned to open Nov. 15, but that didn’t happen. After red-tape speed bumps and a lack of resolution — and as temperatures drop further — shelter director Kim Anetsberger is opening 24-hour lodging anyway.
“All ahead, full speed,” said Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux, who first opened the shelter and is its current landlord. “The cold weather is upon us, we have people out there in tents now, hopefully the Hyde Park Development Review Board will meet soon and approve. We’re just hoping we can resolve this.”
Meanwhile, Hyde Park officials say their hands are tied by state statute — it takes between 30 and 45 days to alter a zoning permit.
“The timeline is set by Vermont law. We have to go through that process, we don’t have a choice,” Carol Robertson, the general manager for the village of Hyde Park and the assistant zoning administrator, said.
A permit application and $215 fee have been submitted, Anetsberger said in a letter to the village, whose development review board has scheduled a hearing to consider it on Dec. 10.
“We may be fined, and will go to court if needed,” she said, but she sees providing 24-hour shelter during a pandemic as worth the risk. “It’s our responsibility as community members and as the shelter to do our part to slow the spread of the virus by creating a space for people experiencing homelessness to be during the day. To see it any other way is inhumane.”
She’s reached out to numerous state and local officials, including Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development Commissioner Josh Hanford, to find solutions.
While there’s no getting around the fact that they will be violating local zoning by opening 24 hours a day, she said those conversations have revealed that, “in many many instances, projects or construction happen all the time before a permit is officially approved, as long as the application has been turned in, paid for and is pending. So, that’s what we are going off,” Anetsberger said.
Marcoux, too, felt Dec. 10 is too long of a wait for people trying to survive in Vermont.
“I feel this is a humanitarian effort,” he said.
As the legal debate — and moral dilemma — rages on, one local man who is currently experiencing homelessness offered his perspective.
His name has been withheld.
“Winters are rough. I won’t lie, they’re bad,” he said, and he didn’t understand why the Lamoille Community House didn’t reopen, just for overnights, on its scheduled Nov. 15 reopening date.
He lived at the Lamoille Community House previously during the winter and in the area before the shelter opened. When the pandemic first hit, he utilized state vouchers that helped people stay in hotels and motels last spring.
Now, he’s in a tent, camping out like what he says are dozens of other people in the area are doing as temperatures drop into the 30s, 20s, and even teens.
“I don’t want to sleep outside, I wanted the shelter to be open on the 15th, when it was supposed to be,” he said. “Being worried about what we’re doing during the day, it’s a hell of a lot warmer during the day than it is at night. I just don’t understand not reopening.”
“I would rather have it open at night. That’s when, if you’re going to freeze to death, that is when it’s going to happen,” he said. It’s only November, with the worst of Vermont’s winter still to come, but “this is dreadful at night,” he said.
Last week, when temperatures dropped down in the low teens for the first time this fall, strong winds made it feel even colder.
“The other night, I went into Cumbys, and the girl in there said it was 4 degrees with the wind chill. And I was camping,” he said.
This year is particularly bad, he said, in part because many places that homeless people typically visit to stay warm, like local libraries, are closed to the public.
He also thought more public services, like public bathrooms or showers, would be useful. Or even a simple warming hut, like the one in Montpelier where people can at least get out of the weather for short periods of time, would be a big help to those trying to survive in Vermont without housing.
“It’s not meant to be enjoyable; it’s meant to be a spot to get warm,” he said.
Getting by for a few weeks in November is one thing, but he viewed the decision to reopen the Lamoille Community House despite the current zoning violation as one that couldn’t come soon enough.
“No one should have to camp out all winter, I don’t care what your circumstances are.”
Who has the power?
Anetsberger and her staff had hoped that Hyde Park’s development review board would write a resolution, based on the current state of emergency in Vermont, saying it would not enforce zoning laws like those that pertain to the shelter.
That hasn’t happened.
“It just seems like they are afraid to do this and have challenged the idea that they have that power,” Anetsberger said. “I am not sure how to convince them of this and I’m running out of energy trying.”
Robertson maintained the development review board does not have that power, even in the current emergency. She said that she and her staff tried to work with the Lamoille Community House staff to find a quick solution, including the power to issue such an order, but they simply do not have that authority, any way you swing it.
“We’ve done everything. It’s regrettable,” Robertson said.
Anetsberger had hoped to use loopholes found in other Vermont towns, like Barre, but special ordinances were already on the books there that allowed that — that’s not the case in Hyde Park, Robertson said.
“We’ve been reassured by everybody, we don’t have the ability to do that,” she said.
Robertson said the application to change the hours of operation for the Lamoille Community House was only complete and ready to be processed by the village zoning office at the end of the week of Nov. 13. If the application to alter the permit had been filed sooner, the issue could have been taken care of already, provided the review board approved the change.
“People make mistakes,” Robertson said.
In a Nov. 23 email to the village, Anetsberger wrote that the shelter’s application “was turned in weeks ago,” but that the fee for the permit change “was dropped off by our treasurer last week. Please confirm receipt of the check.”
In one of her responses on that email chain, Robertson wrote that “In the future, I encourage you to submit an application and fee in a timely manner, well in advance of any changes that you might request of the DRB,” adding that the check had been received and that Dec. 10 was the soonest a hearing could be held to review the application.
Even though the shelter will be in violation, Hyde Park won’t automatically enforce fines. But, if complaints are received, they’ll have to.
Ironically, according to an email from Robertson to Anestberger on Nov. 23, the director letting the village know about the opening in itself is cause for enforcement.
“It is very perplexing that with full knowledge of what triggered enforcement and what the zoning administrator would be required to do if a complaint were received, you instigated enforcement,” Robertson wrote. “We have no recourse: village zoning and the DRB must and will abide by state law.”
Robertson said she doesn’t speak for the village’s zoning officials, but she didn’t expect any enforcement action until after the development review board considered the application and recent events.
“We are not eager to be enforcers in this matter, and regret that enforcement was instigated,” she said.