Ordinance to ease restrictions on shelters

  • By Mina Williams Enterprise editor
  • Tuesday, January 26, 2010 9:04pm

As the need for homeless emergency shelters in South County cities increases, faith-based groups have stepped up to fill that need.

Offering those overnight accommodations, however, comes with some hefty responsibilities — one of those being compliance with city permitting and codes in place to ensure safety.

With most church buildings being older structures without sprinkler systems, fire marshals have voiced concerns they can meet the “no threat” standard.

Installing a sprinkler system in most church structures would cost $30,000 to $40,000, according to Pastor Eileen Hanson of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood. “Considering this investment would be made for, on average, 13 nights per season, churches would have to question if that would be a wise investment for one building for that little usage,” she said.

Hanson reported that during the 2008-09 cold weather season, emergency shelters were open 34 nights, providing 474 beds. So far this season the shelters have been open 18 nights, with 250 beds occupied.

“These are people who are living in their vehicles,” Hanson told the Enterprise. “We see pregnant women and 13-year-olds on their own.”

City officials in Lynnwood have been deliberating the emergency shelter issue for months. Currently, the city supplies a gathering place during freezing nights from which churches then take guests in vans to various locations.

At a Jan. 19 meeting, the Edmonds City Council addressed the fire code requirement for a sprinkler system. Scott Snyder, city attorney, offered up that according to the federal Religious Land Use Law, ministering to the homeless is an expression of religion. A permanent shelter calls for greater attention, he explained.

Edmonds council has previously adopted resolutions for emergency shelters to provide maximum flexibility in the code and alternatives for churches that would be considered non-conforming. Part of the new ordinance was to enable emergency shelters to have the ability to impose a fire watch, install smoke alarms, enforce strict smoking bans in the building and clear emergency exits — safety steps clearing the path to permitting.

“It is important that we should take a leadership role and start a larger conversation,” said Strom Peterson, Edmonds councilman. “There are bigger issues to talk about along these lines.”

Councilman D.J. Wilson moved for passage of the ordinance, which passed unanimously.

“We are inspired and encouraged by this ordinance,” Hanson said at the meeting. “It is a common goal for health and safety.”

“The solution is not money,” Hanson told the Enterprise. “What is needed is flexibility. The city of Edmonds demonstrated that with allowing a fire watch.”

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