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With Zoning Map Amendment Approved, Out of the Cold Can Move Forward with Permanent Overnight Shelter

Out of the Cold: Centre County can move ahead with a permanent site for an overnight homeless shelter in State College following approval of a zoning map amendment by borough council on Monday night.

After a decade of rotating its overnight shelter among faith congregations, the nonprofit organization intends to acquire The Meetinghouse on Atherton, 318 S. Atherton St., where it has leased space and operated a day shelter for the last year.

“We’ve been good stewards of that space,” Sarah Potter, OOTC program manager, said. “We’ve worked hard to be welcoming to all members of our community that are experiencing homelessness while also trying to fit into that neighborhood and be a safe and quiet neighbor. I think we’ve done a good job because this certainly has been a year of need for our homeless neighbors.”

Establishing the permanent shelter will allow OOTC to provide better services for its guests, Potter said, and allow the organization to focus more on helping people gain housing stability faster instead of spending significant time working on the logistics of rotating sites.

The Meetinghouse will be able to accommodate up to 30 overnight guests.

Moving forward with the plans first required a change to the zoning map. The property has long operated as a church use but the shelter will be considered a community center, which was not permitted in The Meetinghouse’s R2 zoning. It is, however, immediately adjacent to State College’s R-3H zone, where the use is permitted.

Centre House, the emergency shelter program operated at 217 E. Nittany Ave. by Housing Transitions, has the same zoning designation as a community center.

Borough planning staff suggested, and planning commission recommended, simply moving the R-3H line to incorporate The Meetinghouse property.

The map amendment, which does not involve the adjacent mixed-use overlay ending at 306 S. Atherton St., was unanimously approved by council.

“I think that finding a permanent place in a central part of the community is extremely important,” Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said.

She added that a variety of group homes and shelter programs exist within and next to residential areas of the borough “and all of our homes are the richer for it. I am not concerned that this will somehow deteriorate the community. I do think it actually gives us a step up from those communities that are struggling right now to deal with increasing homelessness.”

While planning staff have worked with OOTC for years on finding a permanent site and recommended the map change, borough planning director Ed LeClear noted for the record that the amendment opens up some unlikely but possible other uses, if the deal between OOTC and The Meetinghouse were to fall through.

While both the R-2 and R-3H permit student homes, R-2 includes a provision prohibiting a student home from being established within nine lot widths of another one — essentially making it impossible to create another student home in the borough’s R-2 zoning.

R-3H has no such restriction, but LeClear pointed out that student homes are permitted to have only up to three unrelated residents. The 6,000-square-foot Meetinghouse property would not likely be a practical rental venture with only three student residents.

It could also be used for a bed and breakfast, child or adult daycare and small-scale personal care home. Additionally, being located in a highway transitional zone, it could be converted to a professional office.

Most residents who spoke during a public hearing prior to the vote supported OOTC’s use of the property, though some expressed concerns about the possible unintended effect of creep of student housing into mostly single-family residential neighborhoods.

Scott Karduck, who owns a home on West Foster Avenue, said a shelter for up to 30 guests “is not appropriate for the location that immediately abuts residential homes,” adding that the zoning was designed with specific requirements for non-residential uses.

His property is permitted for students but he has typically rented it to families or lived in it himself, he said.

“I feel that having a homeless shelter just 75 feet away will mean I will not be able to secure respectful, community-oriented tenants like I typically have,” he said. “I am not necessarily worried about the vacancies or reduced rents but I do suspect one of the unintended consequences will be a further encroachment of student housing into the neighborhood.”

He added that other properties in zoning districts that already permit community centers have recently been for sale.

“I’m just a little confused on why we are going so far out of our way to put this next to R-2 residential zones when there are many other options available,” he said.

Councilman Peter Marshall, an OOTC volunteer, said he understands the concern about zoning creep, though he does not think the Meetinghouse amendment poses a problem. He added that he believes the property is a good site for the shelter.

“I think this is a good location for Out of the Cold,” Marshall said. “It’s been there for a year. It has not caused any problems in the neighborhood. The churches that have housed Out of the Cold previously are also in neighborhoods and it’s never caused a problem.”

Andrew Fenelon, who lives on West Nittany Avenue in the nearest owner-occupied property to the Meetinghouse, said he welcomes OOTC using the building for a permanent shelter.

“I strongly support the rezoning and I strongly support having Out of the Cold in this spot permanently,” Fenelon said. “It’s been great to have them there for the past year. They’ve been a fantastic neighbor and they’re doing awesome things in State College.”

He said that it’s also important to consider the shelter within the broader picture of housing in State College.

“State College prides itself on being inclusive and it’s my hope the borough council upholds that virtue by rezoning the property and in general understanding that any decisions like these that prohibit rezoning for new housing can sometimes be exclusionary, and I think that’s something we’d all like to avoid in State College,” Fenelon said.

The Meetinghouse was built in 1927 by the Quaker community in State College and was expanded over the ensuing decades.

Sharon Schafer is the current owner of the property and vice president of the Meetinghouse board. For the past several years, the Meetinghouse has been the home of Taproot Kitchen, the culinary venture co-founded by Schafer that provides opportunities to young adults with autism and intellectual disabilities. It has grown from cooking classes to a full catering company that also offers products at farmers markets.

Taproot hasn’t been able to use The Meetinghouse for its commercial kitchen because of zoning and does its cooking elsewhere. The Meetinghouse mostly serves as storage space for the organization and Schafer has been looking for a new space.

She said OOTC’s plans fit with the building’s history of providing needed services for community members.

“I do believe that this is a very fine use for this building,” she said.

Like Fenelon, she also lives in close proximity to the Meetinghouse.

“I have not had any concerns whatsoever about this being so close or butting up against the private properties nearby,” she said.

Potter said the permanent shelter is “a wonderful opportunity,” for the program and its guests.

“It certainly is a benefit to our guests and we look forward to working in partnership with our community members and neighbors to make sure that this works to everyone’s benefit,” she said.