ONTARIO — A possible setback has occurred in the ongoing plan to provide an emergency homeless shelter in Ontario. A complaint has been filed against the entities involved in the project: The City of Ontario, Community in Action and Origins Faith Community.
The temporary project proposes putting 15-20 tiny homes on city owned property nearby Nichols Accounting, which is in the 200 block of North Oregon Street.
The complaint, filed with the Malheur County Circuit Court by Nichols on Jan. 16, cites concerns over “sanitation and health,” claiming that it will be “immediate upon the habitation of these dwellings,” and that it may cause “irreparable health issues” to those in the vicinity, and “irreparable harm” to Nichols’ business reputation. Furthermore it states the shelter’s placement violates multiple pieces of the city’s municipal code.
‘Sanitation and health’
The Argus Observer obtained a copy of the complaint from Ontario City Manager Adam Brown in an email this morning.
The first cause of action listed pertains to the location of the proposed pilot shelter and the proposed portable toilets to be used by residents of the tiny homes.
The complaint alleges the shelter, which will comprise tiny homes, violates the city’s building code regarding “sanitation and health,” as the city’s plan for the shelter includes “portable lavatories rather than comply with the building code.”
“The sanitation and health problem that will likely arise from improperly treated human sewage, may cause irreparable health issues to Plaintiff’s employees, clients, and all others within the vicinity of the Defendants’ project. This sanitation and health issue will likely cause irreparable harm to the Plaintiff’s business reputation.”
Citing “immediate and irreparable harm” as likely, Nichols is seeking an injunction for this cause of action that will prohibit opening a shelter at that location.
Goes against municipal code
The next cause of action is the complaint references is that the shelter permits a dwelling or residence in a Heavy Industrial Zone, which is not one of the principal permitted uses according to city law. It cites Ontario’s zoning regulations which expressly prohibit “dwellings, manufactured home, and recreational vehicle parks, except watchman’s quarters as provided herein.”
Furthermore, the complaint points out that the shelter plan does not include running water, alleging that further violates Ontario’s municipal code.
Other issues listed in the complaint include that the site has not been declared for development, even though the plan calls for more than one structure, and that no written notice was given to Nichols regarding “this departure from municipal building and zoning codes to plaintiffs.”
In addition to attorney’s fees and costs and court costs, for this cause of action the complaint seeks the following remedies.
1). An injunction from placing the shelter at the proposed location in violation of municipal building and zoning codes;
2). A declaration that the defendants will be violating those codes in the event the shelter is placed there or tiny houses are occupied; and
3). A declaration that defendants must cease efforts to place a shelter in the location currently planned.
Barb Higinbotham, executive director for Community in Action, responded to the lawsuit in an email this morning, stating that the agency was “saddened by this action.”
“A healthy community must be comprised of layers of opportunities for all residents that includes adequate and safe housing, public safety, adequate schools, family recreation, living wage jobs, and a crisis response system,” she wrote. “Shelter for the most vulnerable people is part of that crisis response system.”
Pointing to the zoning concerns stated in the complaint, Higinbotham referenced a recent article in which House Speaker Tina Kotek proposes “legislature to pass a bill that would declare a ‘homelessness state of emergency.’” This would thereby enable municipalities to bypass zoning restrictions when citing shelters and other space of critical need for homeless people.
Saying the issue ultimately arose from fear based on worst-case scenario, Higinbotham says the Housing Task Force had the recent opportunity to hear about YIMBY, “yes in my backyard.” This helped them “better understand that there are partnerships that can be formed between shelter providers and businesses as well as community members.”
This mindset she says could “help move the dial forward” in our community and ensure “homelessness is in short in duration and non-reoccurring.”
The broad community issue has been “disregarded as someone else’s problem for far too long in our area.”
The alternative to a shelter is currently in place, Higinbotham explained, referencing the day shelter along with local hotel rooms used for “homeless customers in dire situations.” Those rooms can be costly, and as such the duration is typically short.
“The shelter project is a step in the right direction,” she says.
Origins Faith Community emailed a statement to the Argus on Jan. 21 in response to the litigation.
In the email, he emphasized that the pilot project “is the best plan of action at this time.”
“Origins Faith Community would be very disappointed should this project be shut down out of fear of the worst-case scenario. Pastor James Vogt says, ‘It seems like there is a lot of fear based on the assumption of all the things that could go wrong. Why can’t we instead operate under the assumption of all the things that could go right? We don’t have to determine this is a failure before it even gets off the ground.’”
The complaint that was filed just before 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, according to Brown in a phone interview this morning. The city received the complaint on just before 10:30 a.m. Jan. 17, he said.
“We knew it was coming because the attorneys had talked,” Brown said. “Our initial response is that we don’t think it will hold up in court.”
Councilor Freddy Rodriguez has been instrumental in this project and has been a constant voice from the council on behalf of Nichols Accounting. He has urged those involved in multiple meetings to include Nichols as an active part of this discussion at every stage of the process.
In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Rodriguez said that he sees nothing wrong with the complaint filed by Nichols.
“They have every right to file a complaint,” he said.
He went on to state that the accounting firm had a concern and that concern needed to be addressed.
“I am the only one who has ever stood up for Nichols,” Rodriguez says.
Nichols issues public statement
In a phone interview this morning, Doug Lamm, CPA | Principal for Nichols Accounting said the firm had prepared a public statement regarding the litigation and Nichols’ position with the project.
“The process isn’t working well,” he says, wanting to reiterate that “our whole purpose is to protect our staff.”
In the statement, which the Argus obtained a copy of, Nichols expresses “sympathy for the plight of the homeless in our area,” acknowledging that the “the City needs to take action to help the homeless population.”
However, the timing of the project happening during the winter, when as many as 50 employees often arrive and leave during darker hours, is cited as cause for concern.
“We also believe that it is important to take any action necessary to protect our employees,” the statement reads.
Underlined in the statement for emphasis is a sentence stating that the problem “needs to involve the citizens, especially those who live near special projects such as the current one.”
Brown previously promised personal action in notifying those nearby, however, after investigation it was revealed that step was taken by Community in Action, and the flyers passed out were small portions of a letter-size paper that did not reference “homeless” anywhere. Rather, they advised of a listening session regarding a shelter project.
Nichols found out about the project on Nov. 22, and since then representatives have attended numerous meetings and cited multiple concerns, but had received “no real communication.” Then on Jan. 8, an email informed them a contract had been signed and the dwellings would soon be built, and asked if they had any further concerns.
“We were assured that we would be part of the decision-making process; we were promised to be informed; we were promised a plan that took into consideration the safety of all concerned,” the statement reads.
However, Nichols states there is no adequate plan in place, and that communication has come to late on behalf of those involved in the shelter project.
“Based on this experience, we do not have faith that the City and sponsoring organizations have the communication and management skills necessary to adequately manage the shelter.”