By: Anna Wozniak
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
“It’s just embarrassing when your city is used as an example as to why churches let people die out in the cold across the country,” said Reverend Michael Kelly, a man who has worked to better the less fortunate found in the City of Bryan.
The founding pastor for Grace Community Church, Chairman for the Compassion Clinic of Williams County, and CEO and pastor of The Sanctuary in Bryan, Rev. Kelly has seen more than his fair share of shelter and church operations in the last 33 years.
The embarrassment he was referring to was a recent article evaluating the situation of the homeless during the current arctic blast, wherein the city’s recently pressed charges against Pastor Chris Avell of Dad’s Place were cited as an example as to why churches don’t help the less fortunate -and that’s because the government says it’s a code violation.
It’s no secret that people get assessed code violations sometimes for doing what most would consider the morally right thing, and oftentimes these violations are seen to a close through fines.
Rev. Kelly shared that the pastor is “as humble as they come, and just wants to do good through God’s love,” and is dismayed that he now faces up to $30,000 in fines and 15 years in prison to date for feeding and sheltering the homeless of Bryan.
“I know how shelters work, I help run The Sanctuary, and there are hundreds of people that we have to turn away for various reasons. We have nowhere to send them if not for places like Dad’s Place.”
In a press release, the city had said that in November of 2020, Pastor Avell requested permission to use the C-3 zoned building as a church and was granted that permission. The city also states that Avell never asked to operate the building as a shelter for individuals to live in on a transient basis.
Rev. Kelly shared that the building has apartments built into it, as its previous use as a church has seen pastoral families living there historically.
The city also shared that the knowledge of this building being used as a shelter was not readily available to city officials until an investigation into an uptick in crime at the location began in May of 2023.
After finding out that the building was being used to house individuals, the city sent Avell notice that the situation would not be approved for conditional use, as residential use of a C-3 zoned building is prohibited.
After Pastor Avell continued to house individuals, the city sent the fire chief to do an inspection on November 21, 2023, that found the building in violation of 18 codes that relate to the safety of the occupants.
They shared that some of the most 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.”
They shared that “immediate temporary solutions were implemented to address the most serious fire hazards,” and that a return inspection on January 16, 2024, found five violations still not addressed, and, worse, a previously undetected gas leak which was a result of the improperly installed gas dryer.
The story has since caught not only the eyes of religious media organizations around the country, but also those of the Department of Justice.
Noah Sacks, a trial attorney with the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section out of Washington DC, referred the case over to First Liberty Institute, a civil rights law firm with a success rate of over 95%, and the organization offered to take the case in less than 24 hours.
The case was referred to this law firm because the department would normally hear these kinds of cases if the charges were civil in nature.
Due to the filing of Pastor Avell’s conditional use permit for the C-3 zoned location, the city believes that this qualifies as proof that he has knowledge of the codes and can therefore be held criminally liable for endangering the safety of those staying there with the continued violation of these codes.
It is now expected that the City of Bryan will soon see a lawsuit filed against them for numerous breaches regarding a 16-page set of federal regulations on how state governments must interact with religious organizations called “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Pub. L. 106–274, codified as 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq.,” or RLUIPA.
The city shared that they enforce their “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.”
While Rev. Kelly shared that Mayor Schlade has not returned any correspondence regarding the matter, the press release shared by the city stated that they have been in contact with local homeless shelters to discuss the relocation of those staying at Dad’s Place and have also been looking into other possible locations wherein Dad’s Place could run their own shelter.
Rev. Kelly is adamant that “this all could have been avoided with a simple conversation about what the city’s problem actually is, but it’s too late now.”
Reverend Kelly continued, “I’m frustrated because Dad’s Place is important to me, and so is the City of Bryan, and I’m saddened that the city is so harsh with their actions taken against what is supposed to be a safe haven for their own residents.”
A GoFundMe has been set up for the regular operation of Dad’s Place, and the costs of their attorneys have been covered as well.
Those interested in helping support the operation of Dad’s Place are encouraged to donate to their GoFundMe.
The City of Bryan is staunch on their position that these violations present safety hazards to those seeking respite at the location, and publicly released the Fire and Zoning Code violations that most impact safety.