The Alma, Michigan, planning commission on Aug. 4 voted 4–2 to reject the conditional rezoning request of Bethany Christian Services (BCS), a Grand Rapids-based non-profit, to open what it said was “a small group shelter for short-term care of low-risk children between the ages of 12 and 17 until they can be reunited with their families or placed in foster care.”
The non-profit had announced plans to contract with the federal government to house and care for between 15 to 25 illegal immigrant youths at the proposed Alma facility, and expects the operation to create about 50 jobs.
The location for the residential resettlement center is on a 6.1-acre site of a former nursing home owned by a non-profit called Masonic Pathways, which intends to lease the large building and spacious grounds to Bethany Christian Services for $385,440 per year.
A contentious four-hour public hearing on Bethany’s rezoning request was held by the planning commission on July 12 at Alma High School. About 400 people attended the forum, with most speakers adamantly opposed to the rezoning.
The planning commission shelved any action on the issue until Aug. 4 in order to allow members to give consideration to the public comments made at the hearing, and the hundreds of letters, phone calls, and emails they received, both for and against the proposal.
Because of Alma mayor Greg Mapes’ involvement with the Masonic Order, which stood to benefit financially from the rezoning, he recused himself and did not participate in Wednesday’s meeting.
The Alma planning commission convened the special meeting at 6 p.m. on Aug. 4 before a crowd of about 200 people. Public comment was reserved until the end of the meeting. By 6:40 p.m., a motion was made, discussed, and passed to deny the rezoning request.
Planning commission member Matt Schooley, who made the motion to deny, laid out for his colleagues the legal reasoning behind his motion. He asserted that under the city charter, if a majority of the planning commission members determine all of the five specified factors to be considered in a conditional rezoning request cannot be “affirmatively resolved,” a rejection of the request is required.
Schooley explained that it was the fifth factor of consideration that made up his mind, saying, “I cannot see how the proposed project would serve the safety, health, general welfare, convenience, and comfort of this community. The way this community is split over this is not an indication of comfort. We are not unified on this.”
City Attorney Tony Costanzo cited a city ordinance in support of Schooley’s legal argument, arguing that the rezoning request was “a way around the prohibition of spot zoning.”
Planning commission chairman Don Ayers told the audience, “The federal administration has put the people in communities like ours at odds with each other through its immigration policies. We have a choice whether we want to support them here. We do not have to support such policies through this. I don’t feel comfortable with this request, nor do I see a benefit in it. I recommend denial.”
Schooley commented, “We are told we are not to hear debate on immigration law or national issues. Are we really that naïve to believe this is all about zoning and not bigger issues? Look at the big picture in light of what we are facing right now in this country.”
Speaking in opposition to the denial, planning commission member Ellen Richter stated, “I am a little upset. I’m an immigrant sitting at this table. I think we are going by emotion, which is disappointing. We have approved several conditional rezoning requests. Be consistent.”
The planning commission’s recommendation to deny the rezoning request now moves to the Alma city commission for consideration. No date has yet been set to take up the matter.
An Alma resident named Susan told the Epoch Times, “I am embarrassed that our town is not more welcoming.”
One audience member told the Epoch Times, “If the illegals had been stopped at the border they wouldn’t be here and we would not have to go through all of this.”
Surgeon Jeff Smith, an outspoken opponent of the resettlement center, stated after the meeting, “Finally somebody is standing up to the radical left and saying no. Our country does not support open borders. We need to build the wall and seal the border.”
Smith told the Epoch Times that in his 27 years of observing Alma city politics he has never seen the city commission overrule a recommendation of the planning commission.
“And I don’t expect to see that happen now,” he said.
Bethany Christian Services did not respond to a request for comment by the Epoch Times before press time.