CARRBORO – The Board of Aldermen is proceeding with caution before allowing community kitchens in certain downtown business districts.
The Inter-Faith Council for Social Services plans to combine its Community Kitchen and Food Pantry into a FoodFirst operation. The pantry and IFC offices are currently located at 110 W. Main St.
The move will require amending the town’s Land Use Ordinance, which the IFC requested in May.
The IFC’s homeless shelter and Community Kitchen are currently on Rosemary Street in downtown Chapel Hill. The kitchen serves 80,000 meals a year.
A new shelter building, the SECU Community House, is nearing completion off Homestead Road in Chapel Hill. The 16,000 square foot space will house up to 52 men and will have kitchen and dining facilities on its second floor.
The new shelter will house and feed its residents, but homeless people in and around Chapel Hill and Carrboro who do not stay in the shelter, among others, count on the Community Kitchen for meals.
Normally, the town staff would prepare a draft amendment which would proceed to advisory boards for review and then to the aldermen for a public hearing.
Last month, however, the staff brought the matter to the aldermen first and asked for the board’s direction. Alderwoman Jacquie Gist was first to raise her hand with questions.
Gist expressed concern about people eating at the Community Kitchen, then lingering downtown.
“I’m not saying let’s not do this. The businesses downtown are very concerned, and these are good people,” she said. “Do we have the ability to deal with this?”
Alderwoman Michelle Johnson advised caution. “Let’s just be careful in how we talk about this population,” she said. “People in bars can be very disruptive too.”
All acknowledged the tension between the community’s interest in serving and protecting vulnerable citizens who are homeless and some of whom may also be mentally ill and the needs of downtown retailers to attract shoppers and restaurant patrons to a safe, attractive downtown.
“This is an issue that’s been percolating for years,” Gist said. “They (business owners) have a right, as the people who own this town, to have a say. There are some serious issues and it’s our job to address those.”
Alderwoman Bethany Chaney said she wasn’t convinced of the need for the new category of use.
“I’m afraid that what’s happening here is that staff is coming to us suggesting a new use because they’re afraid that we won’t like the idea that we won’t need that new use,” she said
Alderman Damon Seils asked the board to revert to its standard procedure in considering such changes. He recommended that the staff draft an amendment, have the advisory boards review it, then hold a public hearing.
The board took that action, directing staff to draft the text changes to the ordinance, then proceed with advisory board review.