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Compromise reached in lawsuit involving city, church, house and homeless

Compromise reached in lawsuit involving city, church, house and homeless

St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota was housing homeless in a 132-square-foot house which did not meet city zoning ordinances or state building codes; after a request for an amendment was denied by St. Cloud, the church sued the city in 2016 under the “federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which gives religious institutions greater rights to use their property free of zoning restrictions.” The results are a compromise and new partnerships creating a house that will better serve city, church and the homeless St. John’s seeks to assist.

From Minnesota Public Radio:

Under the settlement with the city, St. John’s agreed to remove the existing house and replace it with a new one almost three times larger. The 384-foot house will have a foundation, electric heat and will be connected to the church’s water and sewer utilities.

Bob Feigh, an attorney with Gray Plant Mooty, represented the church pro bono. Feigh said the federal law was passed in 2000 because a number of churches on the East Coast providing shelter to the homeless were bumping up against local zoning codes.

“The federal legislation says if the church is exercising its religious faith, which providing shelter to homeless individuals is, if it does so on church property, then the zoning authority is greatly diminished,” he said.

The compromise is a 384-square-foot house with a foundation and electric heat, connected to the church’s water and sewer.

“Running a garden hose from the church in February out to a small structure is just not a workable solution in Minnesota winters,” [City Administrator Matt] Staehling said. “Their solution here really I think is a much better solution.”

George Ham, a deacon at the church, called the settlement a win-win for both sides. Although the new house is larger, it’s still smaller than the typical size the city requires, he said.

“There are some faith communities in town who are standing in the wings watching to see how this all plays out, because they have expressed some interest in wanting to help the homeless community in a similar manner,” Ham said.

The new house, which broke ground on Tuesday, is being built by “carpentry, plumbing and electrical students from St. Cloud Community and Technical College,” and a GoFundMe page is helping raise money toward the $40,000 cost.

Photo: Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Previous Episcopal Cafe coverage of churches and tiny houses: Episcopal Church in Montana part of collaborative effort to build tiny houses for homeless people

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