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Albany Family Promise Hits Legal Roadblock

A Supreme Court judge has ruled in favor of a city activist in a case involving a homeless center setting up shop in an upscale Albany neighborhood.

In a February 11th ruling, Judge Gerald Connolly tossed aside a zoning decision that allowed Family Promise to run its New Scotland Avenue center out of the parsonage at Bethany Reformed Church.  Conservative activist Joe Sullivan says he was "sticking up for the neighborhood" when he filed suit back in May.     "The Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Zoning Appeals granting Family Promise the opportunity to run their homeless social services program out of 738 New Scotland Avenue was annulled. There was never a permit issued, because when I went to the court, I requested a restraining order restraining the city from issuing a permit. The Family Promise people have been there, and frankly, operating illegally ever since last summer."

The judge decided the board applied an overly broad definition of “house of worship” when it approved the plan.  Family Promise of the Capital Region executive Director Mary Giordano:   "We're gonna appeal this decision. I believe that's what we will do. We are certainly very disappointed and surprised that such a narrow definition of 'house of worship' was applied by the judge."

Sullivan believes the decision is not about religion nor “religious liberty;” he calls it a "land use decision." Sullivan said one of the reasons he filed suit was over concern of the impact a homeless outreach center would have on property values.   "This R1B single-family neighborhood, Buckingham Pond, Crestwood and the 8th ward and 14th ward, pays the lion’s share of the taxes that support the city schools and city government. So it's foolhardy for the city government to be approving and supporting and condoning a violation of residential integrity because it kills the tax base."

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan has supported Family Promise since its center opened and was there for the ribbon-cutting.   "I live in the neighborhood. I have seen absolutely no negative impact from the activity that's been going on there. So we need to take a look at it. We have to make sure that we're in compliance with rules and regulations that apply to religious institutions, which are quite broad, so we need to have an understanding of exactly what this decision means, and what Family Promise's next steps are going to be."

Sullivan, who says he has nothing against helping the needy, adds that the court decision upholds the zoning code, which protects home values, the city tax base and support for city schools and services "in a city on the verge of fiscal insolvency."  Again, Mary Giordano:    "Well Mr. Sullivan, as I recall, used the word 'drifters' to imply that people just come up and ring our bell and we just take them in and help them. It's not that way at all. We get references from food pantries, from religious communities, social service agencies, that refer us families that they believe we can help. The families we help are traditionally coming in because of loss of job or perhaps the place they were living they were evicted, maybe there was a code violation and they needed to be closed down. So there's a variety of reasons that families become homeless and we do a very careful screening of our families and we try to get them quickly on their feet. If they need to find a job we help them with that. If they need to find affordable daycare, we do that. 75-80 per cent of our guests are actually children under the age of 5."

In continuing to operate, Family Promise is sailing into uncharted waters. Officials have been told they still have an out: they can re-apply to the zoning board for a use variance.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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