Downtown church withdraws permit application for tent encampment

The First United Methodist Church at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 6th Street in downtown is withdrawing its conditional use permit for an emergency shelter.

Jeff Hindoien, Great Falls city attorney, said during the June 21 commission meeting that he’s been in touch with the church’s legal counsel and they’re withdrawing the application to revise their plan and submit a new CUP application.

That means the process would start over and there would have to be a new zoning board hearing about the permit request and that board would then make a recommendation to the City Commission, which would hold its own public hearing to make a final determination.

Zoning board denies permit request for tent encampment at downtown church

The church had submitted a CUP in April that staff determined was incomplete until mid-May.

In 2020, the church began allowing people to sleep and congregate on the property.

Jeff Wakeley, the outgoing pastor, has said that he’s allowing the homeless to stay on the property as it’s their mission to serve the homeless.

But, calls to law enforcement increased significantly over the last year and area residents and business owners complained about noise, debris, public drinking and drug use and safety concerns.

City board considering shelter request from downtown church at June 14 meeting

Several outreach efforts by law enforcement and social service agencies determined that many of those staying at the church weren’t truly homeless but came to socialize on the property with their friends.

Staff advised church officials that without the CUP, the tent encampment that had begun at the church was a violation of the city zoning code and the city had received multiple complaints about the property over the last year.

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City staff gave the church 10 days to address the zoning violation in May, which did not happen, and at the end of May filed suit in district court to enforce the zoning regulations.

The zoning board held a public hearing on June 14 on the application for a conditional use permit for the church to operate as an emergency shelter with a tent encampment in their parking lot. The board voted unanimously after a three hour hearing to recommend denial of the permit application.

Outreach efforts expanding for homelessness, addressing issues at downtown church

The City Commission was scheduled to consider the permit application at their July 19 meeting.

Hindoien told commissioners during their June 21 meeting that the church’s intention is to submit a new CUP application for an emergency shelter but that it won’t take the form of the tent encampment from the initial proposal. he didn’t give a timeline for when he expected the new CUP application to be submitted to the city.

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Hindoien said the church is also making an effort to remove the tent encampment that’s currently on the property to try to reset the situation and develop a CUP application with a more defined structure to address what’s happening at the church property.