Zoning Codes, Conditional Use Permits, and Unconditional Love?

By Joe Colletti | March 24, 2017 | Comments Off on Zoning Codes, Conditional Use Permits, and Unconditional Love?

Zoning Codes, Conditional Use Permits, and Unconditional Love?

 (Joe Colletti, PhD, Society of Urban Monks)
October 2016

A new commandment I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so also you must love one another.
By this (everyone) will know that you are My disciples,
if you love one another.

(John 13. 34- 35)

Public hearings, which are a key part of the approval process of a conditional use permit (CUP) request as outlined in zoning codes, have often become contentious and combative when the conditional use of residential buildings focus on the people who will live in them. I witnessed this over and over again during the past 20 years when the approval process shifted away from development standards, the original intended focus of the approval process, to “unwanted” persons with physical and/or developmental disabilities and others who were homeless at the time. Perhaps, you have as well.

            Zoning Codes
The typical zoning code identifies the uses of land for each zoning district which generally includes residential, open space, commercial, and industrial zones. Development standards for specific land uses are also identified and typically include lot size, lot coverage, setbacks, height limits, and parking requirements.

Residential districts are also listed and commonly include single-family and multi-family residential zones. The land uses include single family housing and multi-family housing, which are permitted by right and do not require a CUP.  

            Conditional Use Permits
A CUP allows property owners to use their buildings in ways that are not otherwise permitted within the zone in which the property is located. For example, the first floor of a corner building in a residential neighborhood may be conditionally permitted to be used as a small grocery store while the upper floor is used as a residence.
CUPs have been approved allowing property owners to use their land and buildings in many other ways that are not permitted in the same zone. Houses within commercial zones have been allowed to become offices and their backyards were allowed to become concrete covered parking lots. Churches, schools, restaurants, and many other land uses have been conditionally permitted in zoning districts that at one time did not allow such uses.

CUP requests have been required when property owners have proposed to use their buildings for housing for persons with disabilities and/or others who are homeless. A CUP was required because the land use was not considered single-family or multi-family housing. The land use was considered a group home and group homes are typically defined as a planned single housekeeping unit that provides care and supervision for the limited number of residents who, although unrelated, live together as a family unit. The care and supervision is non-medical apart from dispensing prescribed medications.
The approval of a CUP request requires public hearings notices. Usually, all property owners within 300 feet of the site for which a CUP request is submitted, receive a notice regarding the public hearing. Public hearings are officiated by a Zoning Hearing Officer whose job is to determine whether or not the proposed conditional use will materially alter the surrounding neighborhood and if so, whether the change will have a negative or positive impact.

The Zoning Hearing Officer usually keeps the focus on the negative or positive impacts of the physical aspects of the proposed use such as adequate parking, front-yard setbacks, building separation, height limits, etc. Participants in the process often focus on the negative impacts of the people who will live in the building, particularly when the use is intended to be a group home of unrelated adults or children or affordable housing for low-income persons. I have seen participants raise issues with parking or front-yard setback requirements in hopes that such requirements would not be met and consequently preventing “certain people” from living in a building.
It is at this point that living out Christ’s command to love one another as he has loved us becomes challenging. The challenge may be the result of feeling negative or uncertain about the people who will be living in the building or allowing others to express their negative feelings unabated.

            Unconditional Love
Unconditional love is love without conditions or circumstances as noted throughout the New Testament. “Love does no wrong to its neighbor” is stated in the Epistle to the Romans (13.10). Also, “be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” is recorded in the First Epistle of Peter (3.8) and stated similarly in the Epistle to the Ephesians—“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love (4.2).
Unconditional love was particularly dominating in the teachings of Christ right before his crucifixion. The Apostle John wrote about these final hours.

“It was just before the Passover Festival.
Jesus knew that the hour had come for him
to leave this world and go to the Father.
Having loved his own who were in the world,
he loved them to the end.”
(John 13.1)

After washing his disciple’s feet, Jesus exclaimed

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,
you also should wash one another’s feet.
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master,
nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
(John 13.12b-17)

 After Jesus predicted his betrayal and right before to told Peter that “before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times,” he told his disciples

“A new commandment I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so also you must love one another.
By this (everyone) will know that you are My disciples,
if you love one another.
(John 13, 34 – 35)

Later, while praying in the garden, just shortly before his arrest, Christ ended his prayer for his disciples and for us today by praying

 “Righteous Father . . .
I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known
in order that the love you have for me may be in them
and that I myself may be in them.”
(John 17.26)

Allowing the love of Christ in us to manifest itself will overcome any challenges we may feel about neighbors who have a disability or may have been homeless. Loving our other neighbors should result in ensuring that development standards are in place to help guarantee that group homes remain in character with other homes in terms of design, health and safety. Focusing on development standards within a public hearing may help others do so as well and not focus on the persons who will be living in group homes.

Allowing the love of Christ in us to manifest itself should also result in not letting negative comments about the persons who will live in the group homes go unabated. Public hearings concerning group homes are often not attended by those who will reside in the homes. Thus, they may be voiceless. If and when this happens, you may remember what the Old Testament commands us to do which is

 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
(Proverbs 31. 8-9)

Just hours before his death and a few days before his resurrection, Christ said to his disciples “I have kept my Father’s commands” and the implication is that so should we. He told them

 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.
Now remain in my love.
If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and that your joy may be complete.
My command is this:
Love each other as I have loved you.”
(John 15. 9-12)

So, the next time, or the first time, you are in a public hearing and if comments from the public focus negatively on others, may you express an unconditional love so that Christ’s joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. Love each other as Christ loves you.