County board: Grace period for tent ministry

12-month delay could aid those for, against tent city

By Kevin Spradlin

* Sept. 26: Tent city applies for CUP

ROCKINGHAM — The tent ministry known as Place of Grace on Airport Road in East Rockingham was given a bit of grace Tuesday night by the Richmond County Board of Adjustment.

Kevin Spradlin | Mark Joplin, of Transitional Services of RIchmond County, talks with county Board of Adjustment members after being sworn in.

Kevin Spradlin |
Mark Joplin, of Transitional Services of RIchmond County, talks with county Board of Adjustment members after being sworn in.

The seven-member board voted 7-0 to continue the public hearing for a conditional use permit application requested by New Life Christian Ministries to operate a transitional service that aims to help people go from being homeless to having a roof over their head.

Pastor Gary Richardson and Mark Joplin, of Transitional Services of Richmond County, plan to operate a service through which homeless people who want better in life enter their camp, receive access to service to help combat the individual’s obstacles to permanent housing and move forward.

Former county planning director Jamie Armstrong, who consults for the county on an as-needed basis, said afterwards that such a lengthy delay “is not traditional” but noted it allows tent ministry advocates to move forward with their plans while current laws and regulations will help address any concerns brought up by area residents who oppose the project.

Board member Fred Morris made the motion to delay making a decision for up to 12 months, by which time church officials must approach the board with a plan for a permanent building. It allows the Place of Grace tent city to remain in operation despite being in violation due to a lack of a permit.

“I don’t think this gives them carte blanche,” Armstrong said afterwards. County officials, he said, are “still going to be watching.”

Any illegal acts, from crimes to nuisance ordinance violations, still will be addressed if and when they arise, he said. But the 12-month delay could, Armstrong said, prove to be “a pretty decent decision” despite the unorthodox length of continuance.

The decision — or lack of one — took place after approximately 77 minutes of discussion, much of it by supporters and opponents of the project as board members danced around the legality of whether or not the purpose of the tent ministry was religious in nature.

* * * 

Richardson opened with a statement of sincerity.

“We’re doing our very best to help these folks,” he told board members and those in the audience, which nearly filled the chamber meeting room.

Board member Greg Norton asked about lighting while member Jim Lambeth asked about the shower — unisex? Yes, Richardson said. For now.

Kevin Spradlin | Michael Davis opposes the Place of Grace tent ministry because he's afraid homeless people will trespass onto his property.

Kevin Spradlin |
Michael Davis opposes the Place of Grace tent ministry because he’s afraid homeless people will trespass onto his property.

Twenty minutes into the meeting, Joplin was the second person to be sworn in and offered a 58-second clarification.

“You mentioned the campground definition,” he addressed the board.

In order to be considered a campground, the facility must charge a fee.

“We do not charge a cent,” Joplin said. “That’s all I want to say. We don’t ask for compensation so it’s not a campground.”

Norton clarified that the application was for a campground. Joplin said the application was for a tent ministry — that county officials called it a campground.

“But it falls under campground,” Norton said.

Maybe. Maybe not.

“According to your own zoning ordinances,” Joplin said, to be a campground one must charge a fee. “We’re not there.”

The public comment period was saturated with passion ranging from a devotion to helping the needy to threats.

Tommy Peacock, of Hamlet, said he’s come to know Richardson over the years and knows about Richardson’s “sincerity in what he is doing.”

Peacock said he empathized with board members’ predicament of toeing the fine line of separation between church and state. This isn’t the case, he said.

The application for a conditional use permit, modified to one for a campground, “does not quite fit.”

Kevin Spradlin | Linda Watson cited a 2006 report about a Rockingham City Hall meeting in which neighbors of the former homeless shelter put up with public sex acts, defecation and the yelling of obscenities within the sight and sound of their children.

Kevin Spradlin |
Linda Watson cited a 2006 report about a Rockingham City Hall meeting in which neighbors of the former homeless shelter put up with public sex acts, defecation and the yelling of obscenities within the sight and sound of their children.

“I feel this board is being unfairly asked to stick your head in that one noose,” Peacock said. “It’s always a deadly ground when we mix the two. You’ve all been thrown a hot potato. If you turn down this permit, where are these people going to go?”

Michael Davis lives in a home behind the church and his land sits adjacent to where the tent ministry is located. He expressed disappointment in not receiving a copy of the packet that is part of the public record. He asked how the residents of Place of Grace would keep warm in the winter months. Richardson noted the Girl Scouts had recently built a fire pit to use.

Davis used that as a launching pad to assault the venture. He expressed concern of his property being burned down, and that of his neighbors.

“Are they gonna pay for my house to be built,” Davis asked.

Harvey Melton, board chairman, assured Davis that no one at Place of Grace would have an open fire if the North Carolina Forest Service stated that conditions were too dry for one.

Davis then mentioned homeowner’s insurance and his dogs, which are kept within a chain link fence.

“If trespassers come in my yard, they’re gonna get shot,” Davis said. “I don’t want nothing coming across my fence.”

Dianne Raines, Place of Grace outreach coordinator, said tent city residents are temporary, and they are supervised and must adhere to the rules.

“I think maybe one misconception that people may have, that everybody we get out there, some of the people are destined to stay under the bridge by choice. The people we have had are people who may have lost a job. We are a temporary solution to helping them solve a permanent problem. As soon as we get somebody in, we get with a property agency. We make it our No. 1 goal to get these people out of there as safely, as quickly, as possible. We’re not trying to do anything but God’s work.”

Davis’ wife, Gina Davis, asked if tent city residents would undergo background checks. Raines and Joplin said safety is paramount.

Kevin Spradlin | Pastor Gary Richardson spoke of the seriousness of the mission about helping the less fortunate.

Kevin Spradlin |
Pastor Gary Richardson spoke of the seriousness of the mission about helping the less fortunate.

“We enter the (name into the) state court system to do the background check,” Joplin said. “If anyone is registered (as a sex offender), we immediately contact the sheriff to ensure we are in compliance.”

Gina Davis asked if the camp would have around-the-clock supervision. As the weather turns cold, she said she’s concerned about tent city residents “stealing my wood to burn.”

Davis noted the tents are set up not near the church but closer to her property line.

“They’re not up there against the church, oh no, honey,” Davis said. “They’re back against my land. Hobos will b win and out. I know because they already try to go in and out. And the four-wheelers go through.”

Davis also expressed concern about trash collection. Joplin said garbage will be collected once a week from the location. Then she questioned whether camp staff would prevent a tent city resident from setting a fire near the natural gas line.

Davis, for one, said she’d be on the lookout.

“I’m gonna be watching,” Davis said. “I’m a Christian myself. I love the Lord and love helping people. But the first one that puts their hand across my fence, or disregards my property, it will be a very bad day.”

Christy McCoy offered a different perspective. At one point in her life, a tent ministry would have been a sight for sore eyes because there was a time she and her daughter had nowhere to go.

“When I was 19, I had a young daughter,” McCoy said. “I found myself in a very abusive relationship. I ran away with my child and had nowhere, nowhere to go. I remained on the streets for two days until I found a place in Troy. That’s a scary experience. To me, as a woman, that tent would have been the biggest blessing. When you have nothing, a tent is better than nothing.”

Several supporters of Place of Grace spoke of doing God’s work, as the Bible commands.

“The truth is, God calls us to do what these people are doing,” said Mike Ussery, of Rockingham. “Whether it’s this church or any other church. God asks us, through scripture, to look after the homeless and the needy.”

Linda Watson, who lives on Greenbriar Lane behind New Life Church, said that she is not unsympathetic with our homeless” and realizes that the resources of a community the size of Richmond County “are very limited.”

However, past actions are an indicator of future behavior. Quoting talk show host Dr. Phil, she said, “Past behavior is an indication of future behavior.”

She then read from a 2006 article in the Richmond County Daily Journal that reported an hours-long public meeting at Rockingham City Hall about the Baker House. The Baker House was the former homeless shelter located at the corner of Midway Road and South Hancock Street. The building was destroyed by fire in August 2013 when the vacant building next door caught fire.

In the 2006 article, Watson said residents in the area — neighbors of the Baker House — had to tolerate homeless people having sex in their yards, defecating in their yards and yelling obscenities. Watson suggested that a tent city was enabling the homeless. When the Baker House was shut down, Watson cited a Rockingham Police Department report that police calls to that area dropped by 28 percent.

“That tells me there was a problem,” Watson said.

She cited a June 3 news report in which Place of Grace officials said that “any homeless person will be welcomed into the field.”

“That, to me,” Watson said, “indicates there will be multiple people coming from multiple counties. Our homeless population is gonna grow.”

Watson also said she was concerned the homeless would flow over into her neighborhood, onto the same streets on which her grandchildren ride their bicycles.

Board member Gerald Witherspoon asked Watson if she’s seen any homeless people on her street. No, she said, but she’s seen them on the highway.

Joplin countered.

“I would like you identify a homeless person walking down the road,” Joplin said. “You can’t. Please come visit our site. Your fears are understandable. Living in the fear is not understandable. I can appease any concern you may have.”

With a successful tent ministry, Joplin said, “everyone prospers. You’ve got fears, come to me. Do not allow your ears to formulate more fear.”

Elizabeth Young, also a Greenbriar Road resident, said she agrees “that there is a need for the homeless but in the back yard is not where it’s needed.”

She asked about a cap on the number of people permitted to stay at the site. She never was afforded a clear answer, though Joplin said people would be moved in and out between “10 minutes and four days.”

She said she’s lived in the area for 16 years without a problem, and that “I don’t’ want to start having problems now. I don’t agree with it. I think there needs to be more standards put into place. I think it shouldn’t just be a free-for-all, and that’s what it kind of looks like right now.”

Stephanie Watson, also of Greenbriar Lane, asked about overnight staffing. Joplin said that related to camp security and refused to divulge staff numbers.

* * * 

At 8:17 p.m., Melton closed the public comment portion of the public hearing. It was time for board members to discuss the issue. For Morris, the issue was clear. It was a tent ministry, not a campground — and he meant that in a secular way.

“It’s a function of the church,” Morris said.

Armstrong provided reference material from David Owens, of the University of North Carolina’s School of Government. In Owens’ book, Armstrong said county staff generally applaud the church’s efforts and the process of a conditional use permit application is a secular, but required event that has nothing to do against or for any religion.

Armstrong acknowledged his role, and Parris’, is not to sway board members’ decisions but simply provide information. The discussion in the beginning centered on whether or not the tent ministry was a campground.

“If instead of a church, the Rotary Club was coming up here because they wanted to have a transition (service), a tent city, with no ministry involved, would it be a campground then,” Armstrong asked. “What would we label that as? They’re in tents. Tents are generally found in campgrounds. Removing the religious aspect of it, how do we address this as a people and a community?”

Morris clarified his position.

“I was not making a distinction between a religous activity and a secular activity,” he said. “Rather than saying a transition ministry versus a campground … I probably should have said a transitional service to a population. I was not making a distinction on the basis of religious, but actual use of the land.”

The discussion then turned to the definition of “temporary.”

“The tent is merely a temporary means to an end,” Morris said. “Religion aside, we still have that issue of, are they trying to erect a campground or are they providing other services that just happen to be housed in tents at this point?”

Melton said the campground was “the closest” label under county ordinances that board members could call the effort.

Then board member Greg Norton noted that if one primary use was a campground, and the land — and the same parcel as the tent city — had a primary purpose of a church, then the land should be subdivided.

“If we were to grant a campground, that would be two primary uses,” Morris said. “There’s have to be a subdivision of the ground.”

“We’re kind of in a quandary here as to how to classify this,” said Morris.

Said board member Gerald Witherspoon: I, for one, think we should make an exception … to allow this, with a lot of restrictions, guidelines and overview of it. That’s just my own opinion.”

Witherspoon acknowledged his personal role in helping to feed the homeless for the past six months.

“I want to commend them on what they’ve done,” he said of Place of Grace leaders. “I know some of the neighbors object to it, but somebody needs to be taking care of it.”

* * * 

Armstrong said the appeal of the board’s decision, or lack thereof, can be directed only to Richmond County Superior Court.

11:34 p.m.  — Stay tuned to as this story is developed tonight.

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