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Vienna Town Council members agreed Sept. 13 that hypothermia shelters run by local groups and churches each winter were a vital community service.
But after a spirited debate, the Council voted 4-3 not to approve a $1,500 donation to Vienna Presbyterian Church to offset the application cost for the necessary conditional-use permit to operate its hypothermia shelter starting in February 2022.
Leaders of the church, located at 124 Park St., N.E., first ran a hypothermia shelter in 2015, after obtaining a permit the previous year from the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals. The church received a five-year permit in 2016 and operated the shelter every winter except this past one, which was affected by the pandemic.
Council member Ed Somers said the service, designed to aid homeless people in the winter months, was something many other governments provide. “This is very expensive for someone who is trying to do what I think is a good act,” agreed Council member Charles Anderson. “This is an emergency social service. People would be out on the street but for this type of thing.”
Other Council members disagreed, including Ray Brill, who said churches typically can raise money for such efforts.
“Get the government out of it,” Brill said of the process. The churches and other groups “are providing a service and I guarantee you, if we don’t waive the fee, the service will still be given and that’s the way it should be.”
Council members Somers, Anderson and Nisha Patel voted in favor of the donation and Brill, Howard Springsteen and Steve Potter against. Mayor Linda Colbert, after pausing for nine seconds, cast the tie-breaking vote in the negative.
Springsteen and Colbert belong to Vienna Presbyterian Church. Town Attorney Steven Briglia told the mayor it would not be a conflict of interest for her and Springsteen to vote on the matter, as they did not stand to gain financially from the decision.
(Had Springsteen and Colbert abstained, the measure would have passed on a 3-2 vote, all things being equal.)
The Council has made donations to non-profit groups in the past, Briglia added. Town fees are statutory and may not be waived administratively, he cautioned. The Council would place itself in a difficult position if it got into the habit of waiving fees, he said.
Governments can contribute toward churches’ secular activities, such as food kitchens, Briglia added.
Town Manager Mercury Payton said the Council had not waived conditional-use permit fees in the past and said staff members were hoping for a decision that could serve as a guideline to be applied consistently in future cases.
For Springsteen, the deciding factors were the precedent the Council would be setting and that fact that Vienna Presbyterian Church paid the fee five years ago when getting its most recent conditional-use permit to operate the shelter. Church of the Holy Comforter in Vienna also pays the fee for its hypothermia shelter, he added.