Supervisors uphold appeal nixing safe parking lot for homeless

Terrance Vestal
Managing Editor

In a rare split vote after an even rarer five-hour-long public hearing and deliberation, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday virtual meeting upheld an appeal in opposition to a monitored, overnight parking lot for homeless people living out of their vehicles at the Bishop Nazarene Church located at 900 W. Line St. in Bishop.
Third District Supervisor Rick Pucci, Fourth District Supervisor Jen Roeser and Fifth District Super Matt Kingsley voted to uphold the appeal filed by two residents, who raised a number of issues regarding the initial approval of the project, including the safety of students at the nearby Bishop Union High School Farm. First District Supervisor Dan Totheroh and Second District Jeff Griffiths Supervisor voted to deny the appeal, favoring to move the project forward with additional mitigation proposals.
The proposal
Inyo Mono Advocates for Community Action applied for a conditional use permit to operate a Safe Parking Program at the Church of the Nazarene. The project would have permitted qualifying people experiencing homelessness to park in up to 15 designated spaces along the west side of the church property from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The vehicle occupants would have had use of the restroom facilities on the east side of the administrative office building of the church during that time only. Participants would be subject to a Meghan’s Law registry check, an IMACA database check to look for previous program violations.
There also would be a trained on-site monitor who would be present while the parking lot was in operation, along with security cameras and motion-detection lights.
IMACA would have entered into an agreement with the Church of the Nazarene to operate the program on a trial basis.
The Inyo County Planning Commission, after including a number of conditions such as a detailed security plan, approved the conditional use permit in January 2020.
Scott Cimino and Laura Gleason submitted an appeal of the Planning Commission approval in February 2020, noting in their cover letter that “the Planning Department misrepresented the project information and failed to accurately analyze the effects of this project.”
The farm
During Tuesday’s meeting, Cimino said he realizes that IMACA does good work in the community and that such a program is necessary. However, he reiterated that the location is “a spot that’s very sensitive because it’s surrounded by the school.”
“I feel like that, just in and of itself, should have discounted this location from the outset,” Cimino said.
Joe Buffington, BUHS agriculture instructor who oversees the student farm operations, said having the homeless parking lot next to the farm would fundamentally change how students interact with the facility to the detriment of the students and ultimately the community.
opportunities for our students to do safe things.”
Davis pointed out that the reason IMACA and the church are working on setting up the program there is “because we are the only location that was willing to give this a try.”
“Our heart is in this for our whole community – for our students and for those experiencing homelessness,” the pastor said.
‘Good and impassioned discussion’
At Tuesday’s meeting, which saw more than 100 attendees, Griffiths said the county had received about 75 letters and emails on the proposal, with “lots in support, lots in opposition with lots of good and impassioned discussion.”
Added to these letters were another dozen or so public comments made during Tuesday’s meeting. These included proponents, including representatives from IMACA and organizations such as INYO350, who said that the homeless problem in the area is only getting worse with limited access to limited resources while facing unfair stereotypes regarding their values and character.
Residents pointed out that many of those who are homeless were born and raised in Bishop. Others noted that BUHS students have mingled with the homeless before during the lunch hour given the proximity of the United Methodist Church and its soup kitchen with no major incidents recorded.
“The objections I’ve heard today and over the past year throughout this process have been about children’s safety,” Ann Strohm of Bishop said. “And we just heard Larry (Emerson) tell us that 13 families experiencing homelessness in our county have children. What about those folks? What about those kids?”
Strohm said opponents site concerns about the program being too close to a school facility, which is based on the assumption that “poor people experiencing homelessness are dangerous people.
“Poverty is not a moral failing,” Strohm said.
Opponents, including current students and former students, said while they agree that the homeless issue needs to be addressed, the Church of the Nazarene with its proximity to the student farm is not the right location. Many suggested that the community make use of the vacant buildings within Bishop to house the homeless or other parking lots that aren’t being used.
Emerson said Wednesday that much of the grant money the agency receives is for “specific eligible activities.” If IMACA receives grant money for safe parking activities, those dollars might not be applicable toward funding other potential solutions.
The vote
After the public hearing and deliberation, Kingsley voted to uphold the appeal because he said he believed there were “too many issues that haven’t been fully explored;” Roeser voted to uphold because she said with the program “we’re subjecting people who are in desperate situations to an intense level of scrutiny and I think it’s demeaning to them;” Pucci voted in favor of the appeal because of the location; Griffiths voted to deny the appeal, adding that he hoped the community can come together to find solutions for the local homeless issue; and Totheroh voted to deny the appeal, saying that he believed that people were making an assumption that “people who are living in cars are more risky to the rest of the population than the general public.”