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Dover City Council zoning debate highlights tensions over homeless services near downtown

dover_city_hall.JPG
Milton Pratt
/
Delaware Public Media

A Monday night Dover City Council rezoning vote highlighted simmering tensions over an effort by the city’s largest homeless services provider to expand its presence west of downtown.

The rezoning request came from Silver Linings Holdings: a company that holds property titles for a local nondenominational church. The company previously partnered with Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing — Dover's primary homeless services provider — in attempts to rezone properties to build a limited-stay homeless shelter.

Dover Interfaith years-long search for a new shelter space began in 2020 when the Downtown Dover Partnership, which owns the buildings housing the organization's existing short-term shelter and day center, announced its intentions to end Dover Interfaith's lease and repurpose the space. But when the nonprofit initially requested that a property west of downtown on Division Street owned by Silver Linings Holdings be rezoned to accommodate a shelter, the council rejected the plan, citing the objections of neighbors — including a funeral home and a residential neighborhood — who claimed that the shelter would introduce increased foot traffic, panhandling and trespassing.

That rejection prompted an ongoing lawsuit in which Silver Linings Holdings arguing that the council was legally obligated to use an objective rubric to make zoning decisions — considering whether a proposed zoning fits the city's comprehensive plan, for example — and could not deny a rezoning request based on a proposed use of a property that aligns with its zoning.

In its latest request, Silver Linings Holdings once again asked the council to rezone the property on Division Street for anything from a storefront to apartments; notably, however, the company requested a type of zoning that does not include shelters. Silver Linings' application also made no mention of the proposed use of the site, and Dover Interfaith was nowhere to be seen — neither in the rezoning request nor in the council chambers on Monday night.

But several council members were quick to raise the possibility that the site could be used to house or serve Dover's growing homeless population. Council President Roy Sudler Jr. accused the company of keeping its plans under wraps to avoid another rejection.

"It was a fact on the [last] application that Interfaith wanted to do a shelter here," he said. "They came, they sold it during the zoning [hearing], which opened them up for the decision we made.”

And while the rezoning request would not allow the construction of a shelter, some council members still objected to the possibility of providing long-term housing for homeless residents at the location, citing its proximity to Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

“I could buy the building, turn it into apartments and rent it to the homeless for $5 a month," Councilman William Hare said. "[With this rezoning], you couldn't stop me from doing that.”

Though Dover Interfaith's shelter does accept people on the sex offender registry, Councilman David Anderson noted that any hypothetical housing at the site would be off-limits for people on the registry because of state laws prohibiting them from living within 500 feet of a school.

Silver Linings' representative Tolano Anderson expressed disbelief that despite the earlier lawsuit, the council once again centered its rezoning discussion on the possible uses of the site rather than the standard rubric for evaluating zoning changes.

“You’re either going to follow the law or you’re not," he told the council. "You don’t have the criteria right now to decide that ‘based on the use we think you might do at some point in the future, we’re not going to approve.’ We meet the requirements."

Anderson underscored that the rezoning proposal now has the sign-off of Dover's city planner and town manager and acknowledgement from Delaware's Department of Transportation that rezoning the site wouldn't worsen traffic. He also pointed to letters from several of the site's neighbors — including some critics of the previous rezoning request — expressing new support for the project. Only one neighbor appeared to testify against the rezoning: the owner of the car wash next door.

When asked for more detail about his company's plans for the site, Anderson maintained that the rezoning itself is their plan, after which they will "decide what the best use of the property could be."

"If I wanted to do a homeless shelter," he added, "I already own three acres zoned for it. I could do a shelter at any time. That’s not my concern… My interest is what’s best for the city.”

Support for Silver Linings' rezoning proposal was seemingly split between two camps. Some, like Councilman Andre Boggerty, emphasized that the council should avoid weighing in on the future use of the site. “I think we should trust that our city planner has done their due diligence," he said, "and we listen to the rules of law and not make assumptions. If not, we’ll find ourselves in another lawsuit.”

Boggerty also suggested that the creation of affordable housing on the site might help address Dover's escalating housing shortage; any problems arising from tenants, he said, would be the responsibility of the property owner, not the council.

Others, like Councilwoman Julia Pillsbury, asked whether the city could narrow its zoning rules to force property owners like Silver Linings to be more specific about how they plan to use their parcels. "I don’t think anyone has any serious concerns about the commercial use of the property," she said, "but I think it’s the residential use of the property that’s making all of us uncomfortable."

The council ultimately approved the rezoning request, with only Sudler and Hare voting in opposition.

Silver Linings Holdings maintains that there is not yet a detailed plan for how the site will be used, but Dover Interfaith Director Jeanine Kleimo notes that the city should embrace the possibility that the site could be used as affordable housing. "There's a demand for affordable housing downtown and this zoning would permit a residential project," she said. "Councilmembers are more supportive of zoning that would prioritize commercial development over residential development, but that neglects the shortage of workforce housing."

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.