Spencer will not allow facility for homeless veterans in neighborhood

SPENCER — Spencer aldermen assured angry residents Tuesday night that they will not change a town ordinance to allow a halfway house for homeless veterans to open at 418 S. Carolina Ave.

The town revoked the zoning permit for the facility last week after a town employee discovered that the house stands less than a mile from an assisted living facility at 120 10th St. A town ordinance prohibits similar facilities within a mile of each other.

A large crowd filled Town Hall Tuesday night to protest plans to put a home for veterans suffering from mental illness and substance abuse in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Rowan County sold the property to the Col. Abram Penn Veterans Foundation, which had planned to open the facility in two months and place 28 veterans in the 3,500-square-foot home.

Neighbors say they did not know about the facility until an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony Feb. 4 that included a rifle salute and featured local, state and federal officials.

“I’m extremely upset,” Greg Oswald said. “I’m still surprised I have hair.”

Although Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber told the Post last week that the town of Spencer and county attorney were trying to come up with changes to the ordinance to allow the facility, Spencer Aldermen Jeff Morris on Tuesday said the veterans home is not even a “remote possibility.”

Morris said no one on the town board supports amending the ordinance, and he would not vote to make Spencer the “dumping ground” for facilities that house the homeless, mentally ill and substance abusers by allowing shelters and rehabilitation facilities within a mile of each other.

Morris, who has said he supports veterans and the concept of a place for homeless veterans, said the applicant for the zoning permit misrepresented the facts and town staff took the applicant at his word. Morris said the veterans facility would have been within 0.3 mile of the assisted living facility.

Spencer officials issued a zoning permit on Jan. 8 to Dr. Tim Heath, the foundation chairman, to run a facility providing 24-hour supervision of homeless veterans. The application said the facility would house 10 or fewer veterans, according to Price Wagoner, Spencer’s land management services director.

Aldermen said they did not know about the facility until they read about coverage of the ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Post. The board went into closed session Tuesday to discuss Town Manager Larry Smith’s communication with aldermen.

During public comment, neighbor Ron Kester said officials should have alerted residents to the proposed veterans home. Kester also doubted that 28 men could live legally in a home that was built for a single family.

“You haven’t done your job here and you haven’t informed the people,” Kester said. “You haven’t come to us and asked us a thing about it. You just tried to ram it down our throats.”

Danny Patterson said everyone should be required to “follow the rules,” and Sheila Hooper said the veterans home would have required significant staffing.

“You were all crazy to allow it,” she said.

Town leaders and staff commiserated with residents, and Alderman Kevin Jones apologized for the lack of communication in the town.

“We have to decide how we can fix some of those issues,” Jones said.

Mayor Jody Everhart apparently was the only elected official in Spencer who knew about the facility and ribbon cutting before it happened. He said he was told there would be a small ceremony with a few people and had no idea there would be a rifle salute or that the facility would house veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse and mental illness problems.

“I had the same concerns as the neighbors,” Everhart said.

Alderman Reid Walters said while homeless veterans need a facility like the one proposed, it should not go in a densely populated residential historic district.

“Most veterans who live in Spencer would agree,” Walters said.

If people had known about plans for the facility, Spencer residents would have turned out at Rowan County commissioners meetings to protest, he said.

Spencer staff are now keeping a list of all group homes and similar facilities in the town limits, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Gobbel said.

“Hopefully that will never happen again,” he said.

The application should have been a “red flag” for town administrators, he said, and staff should have double-checked the information.

Town Manager Larry Smith said information on the application was misrepresented.

“If I was a resident beside that home, I would have been infuriated as well,” Smith said.

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