Hundred Nights Inc., the Keene nonprofit that assists people experiencing homelessness, drew one step closer Tuesday night to its longtime goal of moving from its Lamson Street facilities.
At a public hearing postponed from earlier this month, the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a land-use variance to the organization for properties it hopes to acquire at 122 and 124 Water St. The board heard testimony from Hundred Nights representatives and more than a dozen members of the public before approving the variance, which authorizes a homeless shelter on the properties, despite their inclusion in a business growth and reuse district that does not otherwise permit shelters.
Jim Phippard of Brickstone Land Use Consultants in Keene, representing Hundred Nights before the ZBA, told board members the organization would consider using two existing buildings at the Water Street properties, at least temporarily, for its shelter and resource center. He added that Hundred Nights would likely build a permanent two-story shelter on the site, the former location of Tom's Auto Service until the business closed earlier this year.
Hundred Nights would continue to host clients at its 17 Lamson St. shelter until it can fully move its operations to Water Street, Phippard said.
The board also voted Tuesday to continue consideration of a second petition by Hundred Nights, for a change of nonconforming use at 15 King Court, the former site of Downtown Fitness Keene, at its Nov. 2 public hearing. Phippard said the organization would no longer need to lease that property for additional bed space if it can host clients on Water Street.
After saying the organization would withdraw that petition if it received a land-use variance on Water Street, Phippard requested the continuation to November — on the advice of zoning board staff — in case the board's decision to grant a land-use variance is appealed.
Hundred Nights needed the variance to apply for federal funding that is available to homeless shelters for protecting their clients from COVID-19, its executive director, Mindy Cambiar, told The Sentinel last month. Without the funding, Cambiar explained, the organization would not be able to acquire the Water Street properties.
On Tuesday, Cambiar told the zoning board that the number of guests at Hundred Nights' shelter nearly tripled from 2016 to 2019 and said the COVID-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, including the potential loss of two locations where guests slept during the colder months last year.
Phippard then presented the organization's request for a land-use variance at 122–124 Water St.
Reviewing the five-part requirements for a variance, he told board members that the proposal would satisfy each criterion. In reference to a requirement that the proposed use does not diminish the value of surrounding properties, Phippard presented data compiled by Hundred Nights showing that abutting properties at its Lamson Street facilities decreased in value by 1.3 percent from 2011 to 2016 while citywide property values declined by 5.9 percent over the same time.
Phippard added that the current land-use ordinance presents a "hardship" for Hundred Nights to find expansion opportunities, even though the city is planning to overhaul its land-use regulations next year.
"Given the uncertainty of the proposed rezoning, we just can't wait," Phippard said.
Zoning board Chair Joshua Gorman cautioned members to focus primarily on the current land-use ordinance, rather than the proposed changes, which have not yet been adopted.
Board members also heard testimony from several members of the public supporting the request and several others, including some living near Water Street, opposing it.
A number of religious leaders asked the board to approve the variance, including Rev. Derek Scalia and Rev. Elsa Worth of St. James Episcopal Church, where Hundred Nights clients slept during the colder months last year, who said the clients are decent people and good neighbors. Tom Julius, chair of the Monadnock Interfaith Project, told board members that the city would help people experiencing homelessness by granting the variance, as well as the community.
"This proposal by Hundred Nights ... represents an opportunity to fulfill a civic responsibility that would lift us all," Julius said.
Other members of the public noted their opposition to the land-use variance, as several told the board they expect the shelter to attract people with substance-use issues. Krishni Pahl, who lives nearby at 84 Valley St., said she is concerned about losing potential tenants for an apartment unit she rents in the neighborhood if the shelter is authorized.
"I understand that Hundred Nights is essential ... but unfortunately, they have not been good neighbors downtown," she said.
After giving Phippard and several members of the public an opportunity to respond to the comments, the zoning board moved to close the public hearing around 9:45 p.m., more than three hours after it began.
After some discussion, the board voted 3–2 to grant a land-use variance to the organization for 122–124 Water St.
Board members Michael Welsh, Jane Taylor and Arthur Gaudio voted in favor of the request, while Gorman and Joseph Hoppock voted in opposition.
The zoning board’s decision means that Hundred Nights is eligible to apply for funding available to homeless shelters from the federal CARES Act, via the independent state agency N.H. Housing. The money is available to help shelters implement “decompression” strategies to give their clients more space for social distancing according to Cambiar.
With limited space in Hundred Nights’ current shelter, Cambiar said she had hoped to find a second facility.
That has proved difficult in recent years, however, due to challenges posted by Keene's current land-use ordinance, which does not permit "lodging houses" — which include homeless shelters — in several districts. The zoning board denied previous requests by Hundred Nights for variances at two different properties in May 2017 and October 2018.
The shelter received a land-use variance in September 2010 to operate at its current location on Lamson Street, which is in the city's central business district.
The organization formally requested land-use waivers for the properties at 122–124 Water St. and 15 King Court last month.
Hearings on those requests were originally scheduled for Sept. 8, but the zoning board postponed them two weeks after receiving a flurry of public comments about the land-use petitions, Corinne Marcou, the board’s clerk, said at the time. The board received more than 100 comments, according to Gorman.