Eugene's latest proposed homeless camp, known as the Nightingale Health Sanctuary, has hit an early stumbling block.
City Attorney Glenn Klein determined this week that the 1.1-acre, privately owned site chosen for the camp -- on the corner of Railroad Boulevard and North Polk Street in the Whiteaker neighborhood -- isn't eligible to become a 15-person, city-endorsed "rest stop."
That's because the vacant lot is "immediately adjacent to ... single-family dwellings and a multi-family apartment complex," Klein wrote to City Manager Jon Ruiz. That runs afoul of the 2013 city ordinance that first authorized rest stop camps but banned them "in a residential area," Klein wrote.
The legal opinion comes after the City Council, with little prior warning or discussion, tentatively approved a rest stop on the site on July 30 -- its last meeting before an August recess. That approval was conditional on Ruiz finding "no reason to reject" the site, however.
Now, city officials say, a 15-person camp could be approved on the lot only if the council votes to alter the overall rest stop ordinance or to grant an exception to the Whiteaker site.
The news appears to be a setback for backers of the Nightingale Health Sanctuary.
Project advocates hope eventually to build a so-called "microhousing" project, a collection of one-room bungalows and huts that would house about 30 people. Long-term plans include a possible "overnight guest" program that would allow additional homeless people to sleep at the site, and an on-site health clinic.
To do all that, the nonprofit would need a conditional use permit from the city, a process that usually takes six to seven months. The group has yet to submit its application. Project advocates had hoped to use the rest stop designation as part of a gradual development of the project in coming months, to win over area residents and businesses. Many neighbors and nearby property owners strongly oppose the proposal, saying the neighborhood already has its share of facilities serving the homeless.
Like other city-endorsed camps, the project wouldn't allow drugs or alcohol and would evict residents who didn't abide by the rules.
Backed by a $400,000 anonymous private donation, the group has leased the vacant lot, with an option to buy if it secures a conditional use permit.
Mary Broadhurst, a steering committee member for the Nightingale Health Sanctuary, wasn't downbeat about the ruling by city staff on Wednesday, however. That's because there are "several different paths" advocates can use to allow people to stay on the site, she said.
Under the city's overnight car camping ordinance, Broadhurst said she believes that campers will be able spend the night there in up to six tents, vehicles or huts -- on the paved or graveled portions of the mostly grass-covered lot.
Advocates plan to move four or five homeless people to the site on Friday, she added, now that the nonprofit has secured insurance.
"We're moving slowly," she said. "We still have a big job to do when it comes to doing outreach in the neighborhood."
Area residents have expressed concerns about the heavy concentration of homeless services in and near the Whiteaker neighborhood -- including all four existing city-backed overnight camps. They've also expressed apprehension about possible hits to their property values and unease about noise, property crime, and drug and alcohol use by campers.
Brad Foster, who lives nearby and is a board member on the Whiteaker Community Council, was expecting to meet with city staff Tuesday evening to discuss the rest stop proposal. But on Tuesday, he was informed that the meeting was canceled due to Klein's opinion.
While the larger camp could still move forward if it receives a conditional use permit, Foster said neighbors "see this (development) as a victory for fair, public process."
The City Council's approval of the rest stop last month "felt like a middle-of-the-night type deal, where we only got to weigh in after the fact," he added.
Foster said city officials will hear "lots of public input" about the camp during the conditional use permit process.
"It would be nice if this process didn't rip us all apart, though," he said. "There are better solutions than this (proposal). We want to work towards progress" for the local homeless population.
City Councilor Claire Syrett, whose ward the Nightingale site is located in, first mentioned the rest stop proposal to the City Council on July 28, two days before the final vote.
Syrett said Wednesday she'd done so at the request of homeless advocates, who wanted the rest stop approved before the council's August recess.
"I asked, 'Could this not wait?' and they said, 'We'd like to do this sooner rather than later,'?" she said.
Syrett acknowledged she didn't visit the site before the vote. She said the proposal came up at the same time that the council was preparing to vote on its high-profile and controversial mandatory sick leave ordinance.
"Quite frankly, I didn't have time to think through all the pieces of the rest stop proposal" at that site, she said, noting that the council delegated to Ruiz the authority to nix the proposal should a "fatal flaw" emerge.
"I recognize that people have been pretty upset by this," Syrett added. "But I don't know that with a different process (by the City Council), they'd have been less upset."
The council ultimately approved the rest stop on a 7-1 vote, with Councilor George Poling opposed.
Syrett said she won't propose or support making an exception to the rest stop residential rule for the Nightingale site when the council returns from its break.
As for the conditional use permit application, "I'd prefer to let that process play out as it's supposed to," she said.
To obtain a permit, backers would need to demonstrate that the site could be served by utilities and is sufficiently accessible to vehicles and pedestrians. They would also need to demonstrate that their proposal is "reasonably compatible" with the surrounding area.
That decision would be made by a city hearings official after a public hearing. It could then be appealed to the city's planning commission and the state Land Use Board of Appeals. The permit doesn't require the City Council's approval.
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