In November of 2023, the City of Bryan began pursuing charges against Mr. Avell under provisions of the City Planning and Zoning Code.
On Thursday, January 11th, the arraignment of Chris Avell took place at the Bryan Municipal Court, with Mr. Avell entering a plea of not guilty. Currently, Avell is facing at least 18 criminal charges for zoning violations.
Senior Counsel at First Liberty Institute Jeremy Dys, who represents Mr. Avell, stated, “To file criminal charges against a pastor for daring to care for the homeless in the frigid winter is unconscionable.”
“The city has decided that it’s better for the homeless to freeze on the fringed cold sidewalks than to allow a church to be a church and remain open 24 hours a day to those who need it the most.”
The church was planted back in 2018, and with that came the vision for what the church should be. Since then, Chris has been sharing Christ with anyone who wishes to learn about him.
Later on, after the church’s founding, Mr. Avell states God put the idea of being open 24 hours into his heart.
“It wasn’t time to be open 24/7 in the beginning, although we were open every day. We always had multiple bible studies every day, and we ended up starting to open the church up later and later.”
“Many times, we had gotten calls from the police department for someone who needed a place to cool off or who needed help in some way.”
“I figured this was God’s way of telling me now was the time. At that point, we ended up opening our doors 24/7. Our intention wasn’t to specifically do any one thing.”
“We had homeless people who needed help hanging out here, we have a building that can be open 24/7, so we might as well use it 24/7.”
“The Bible gives us standards of when someone has to leave the church. That was our standard and for us, you never have to leave the church.”
A statement was previously released by Bryan City Officials saying, “Beginning in May 2023, the City of Bryan began seeing an increase in calls for service to the Bryan Police Department based on inappropriate activity at Dad’s Place.”
“Some of the calls were for criminal mischief, trespassing, overdose, larceny, harassment, disturbing the peace, and sexual assault.”
“In late fall, the city became aware that Dad’s Place was allowing individuals to live, on a transient basis, at this location. This use of the property at 226 S. Main St. is a violation of the city’s zoning code.”
“Dad’s Place is located in the C—3 zoning district of the city. This zoning district allows churches and other places of assembly to operate as a conditional use. It does not permit residential use on the first floor of any building in this district.
In 2020, Pastor Avell, showing that he knew the zoning laws applied, properly requested a conditional use at 226 S. Main St. so he could operate a church at this location. The city granted this request.”
“Pastor Avell never requested, nor was approval given, to use Dad’s Place as a residence or homeless shelter. The city enforces its zoning code equally to all. A church does not have any special rights under the zoning code and the city expects Pastor Avell and Dad’s Place to follow the law as it does for all within the city.
“Pastor Avell and Dad’s Place were given notice to cease the violations of the zoning code, and the city offered to assist in placing any persons living or staying there.”
“Pastor Avell, soon after receiving notice of the initial violations in November 2023, inquired as to whether he could get a conditional use permit to allow continued residential use on the first floor.”
“He was informed administratively that residential use in a C-3 is prohibited and cannot be approved as a conditional use. The only reason this is still an ongoing fire/safety concern is because Chris Avell ignored the city’s notices in the fall, hence forcing criminal charges related to zoning.”
“The city also became concerned about whether Dad’s Place was complying with the Ohio Fire Code given the discovery that people were sleeping at Dad’s Place. On November 21, 2023, the Bryan Fire Chief conducted a fire code inspection at Dad’s Place.”
“The fire chief discovered 18 Violations of the Ohio Fire Code during this initial inspection. Several of these violations were serious and potentially endanger the lives and safety of those in the building.”
“Some of the serious violations included improper installation of laundry facilities, inadequate or unsafe exit areas, LP cylinder for gas grill improperly placed inside the building, an unpermitted gas dryer installed with impermissible plastic duct outside Ohio Mechanical Code guidelines, no permitted and approved kitchen hood over the stove, and limited ventilation. Immediate temporary solutions were implemented to address the most serious fire hazards and the fire chief gave Dad’s Place until January 9, 2024, to address these violations.”
“The fire chief conducted reinspections at Dad‘s Place on January 9 and January 16, 2024. In the reinspections, he found five violations that had not been properly corrected.”
“Again, most of these violations are serious and potentially endanger the health and safety of those individuals at Dad’s Place and residents in the apartments located above Dad’s Place.”
“The fire chief returned on January 16, 2024. to determine if these violations had been corrected. Upon arriving at Dad’s Place, the fire chief noted approximately 20 people who had been sleeping overnight at Dad’s Place on cots or on the floor.”
“The fire chief also discovered a gas leak due to improper installation of the unapproved gas dryer in Dad’s Place that had the potential to put people in jeopardy.”
“The fire chief, in conjunction with the local natural gas provider, corrected this gas leak. Since these violations of the Ohio Fire Code were not addressed. Dad’s Place was cited for these violations under City of Bryan ordinances.”
“The city takes its responsibility to protect the health and safety of members of the public seriously and will take appropriate action if these fire code violations are not corrected by January 23, 2024.”
“While the city has been addressing these issues, it has been accused of failing to support the homeless. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a homeless shelter, The Sanctuary Homeless Shelter, that fully complies with the zoning code and the code operates next to Dad’s Place.”
226 REAR SOUTH MAIN … Dad’s Place is located at 222 Rear South Main Street in Bryan.
“The city works cooperatively with this shelter on an ongoing basis as it serves this population well while doing so in a safe and legal manner. The city has been in contact with The Sanctuary to determine if there is room for people coming to Dad’s Place.”
“Also, there are places in the city where Dad’s Place likely could operate a safe homeless shelter that would be consistent with the zoning code.”
“For example, the city also contacted individuals in charge of selling a facility in Bryan that, pending zoning approval, could be used by Dad’s Place. This facility is in an area of the city that would permit individuals to sleep in the building.”
“The city, additionally, has also sought assistance from various social services organizations to find help for the homeless. Below are documents supporting Fire Code and Zoning Code violations. Incidents related to criminal activity will be produced at a later date due to the need to redact information in order to protect victim’s rights.”
The release stated that the Bryan Police Department had begun receiving an increase in calls for service due to “inappropriate behavior” at Dad’s Place.”
“A records request was completed in order to verify the claim made, with closed cases being received thus far. The majority of the calls appear to have been initiated by those staying at Dad’s Place.
Incidents did also occur at Dad’s Place including missing juveniles and a reported sexual assault. In many instances, a trespass order was issued at the request of Mr. Avell. Some cases were said to still be open at this time and have may yet been viewed.
One report however shows that the Bryan Police Department had transported a woman who was homeless, to Dad’s Place after being told a room had opened up there.
The report reads “Due to Melanie not having a ride to Dad’s Place, I loaded her belongings into my patrol vehicle and transported her there.”
During a previous conversation with the Bryan Police Department, Police Chief Ruskey was asked about a claim made by Mr. Avell. This claim was that officers had previously brought or directed individuals to Dad’s Place who were homeless.
Chief Ruskey had stated that officers were sending people there to get resources, but that they were not sending them there to stay the night. It is not clear as to if this was the only instance where this occurred or not.
In a separate and previous press release sent out by the Bryan Police Department, case law was cited from the Ninth District Court of Appeals of Ohio.
This case was also appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court which was denied. The release stated that this case was, “supporting religious organizations cannot create homeless shelters within their property that violate local zoning codes.”
The case referenced involved the Homeless Charity organization and the Akron Board of Zoning Appeals. The Homeless Charity had made attempts to obtain a conditional use permit that would have allowed for a “campground/tent community” for the homeless.
Lerryn Campbell, the Executive Director of the Homeless Charity, explained that the organization had worked with the city to set up a legally sanctioned campground.
The organization had gone through the zoning process and was denied. She also stated that organization was a 501 C3 and that it had never had any religious affiliations.
Campbell also explained that, since then, the organization has worked with the city to create a continuum of care. Several organizations came together including the City of Akron and Social Services to create this continuum of care.
Campbell stated that, in their continuum of care, churches are their backup plan. “People risk dying out on the street because no one can take them in. Our backup to the backup is churches. If we completely had no space available, especially in inclement weather, our backup is a church.”
Since those releases have been put out, the First Liberty Institute, which is a nonprofit law firm that defends religious freedom, together with law firms Taft and Stettinius and Hollister LLP and Spengler Nathanson PLL have filed a Federal Lawsuit and motion for a temporary restraining order on behalf of Dad’s Place. The action was filed in the United States District Court Northern District of Ohio on Monday, January 22nd, 2024.
The lawsuit names The City of Bryan, Mayor Carrie Schlade, Police Captain Jamie Mendez, Planning and Zoning Administrator Andrew Waterson, and Fire Chief Douglas Pool.
The lawsuit claims that issues with the city began back in 2020 when the city informed both Dad’s Place and Revival Hub Church that they were not able to operate in the C-3 Zone without a conditional use permit.
“The city then denied both churches’ applications for a permit. Revival Hub Church had to move ten miles away to Holiday City, Ohio. Dad’s Place was able to stay put because the back half of the property was already approved for religious use, but to date, the Church has to operate a retail business out of the front half of the property.”
For context, the property Dad’s Place resides in a structure encompassing both 226 Rear South Main and 216 South Main Steet in Bryan.
At one point in time, the addresses were separated by a firewall, which was removed years before the Church took over occupancy. The two addresses are now one building and have been since church operations began.
Also included in the lawsuit were claims that the city had discriminated against Dad’s Place on the basis of its religion and religious practices, claiming “the city has targeted Dad’s Place for harassment precisely because the Church ministers to the most vulnerable in Bryan and provides shelter to people who have nowhere else to go.”
A motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction (TRO) also states that city officials have “even threatened the church’s landlord with criminal charges if he will not cooperate with the city and evict Dad’s Place. Further, the city has promised to take “appropriate action” to force the Church to shut down tomorrow.”
On January 23rd, a teleconference had taken place regarding the TRO, with it being stated counsel agreed to maintain the “status quo” pending further briefing and a hearing on the motion. A hearing on the TRO was set for Monday, March 4th at 9:30 a.m.
Pastor Avell explained that at this point so far, everything has been quite the journey. “It has been quite the journey. Lawyer, press releases, interviews. But at the church, we march on.”
“It is such a privilege to be able to witness what God is doing in and through His church every day! Not only at Dad’s Place but all over our city and this country and world!”
“God continues to amaze me. He answered my prayers in sending a team of people who would not just go before me in the courts but pray with and for me.”
“When the legal team first came to visit in Bryan, Ohio one of the team, Lisa, was there strictly to provide prayer and spousal support. Praise God!”
“Our church and me personally are praying daily for our city officials. These are real people. People like me, people with families. People with all the troubles and pains of life. And this has to be incredibly difficult on all of them as it is me.”
“I want to encourage everyone to remember that and be kind to one another. And I want to encourage them with the words of our Lord. “In this world, there will be trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”