Story by Jeri Bloxom
Discussions on how to be a good neighbor and citizen were held during the Minden Planning Commission meeting last week, where a zoning variance request by First Baptist Church of Haughton was the main focus.
A large crowd attended the Thursday, Sept. 5 meeting in order to have their voices heard on whether property at 525 Sullivan Street should be rezoned from single family residential to multi-family home for adult residents.
Most of the opposition to the variance was rooted in the proposed residents of the property, whom would be released from prison.
“I came here today to say no to allowing the zoning variance at 525 Sullivan St., not because I don’t believe in rehabilitating persons with criminal backgrounds, but because I believe it should be done in a place that is further away from our schools, libraries, parks and – most of all – our homes,” said Christopher Taravella. “I don’t want to eliminate the possibility of helping the church fulfill its mission, I just want more research into a better location.”
John Lewis, warden at Bayou Dorcheat Correctional Center, spoke in support of the variance.
“Statistics show that when people are plugged into a church or accountability program, their chances of returning to prison are reduced drastically,” Lewis said. “This program is not an experiment … it works.”
According to the proposal, former prisoners would have completed their sentence and be released from prison before being able to live in the home.
“They would have to go through an interview process, where a panel of people in the community would decide if they are good candidates for the house,”
Lewis explained. “None of the residents would be sex offenders, guilty of violent crimes or crimes against children.
“Most of them are already working full time through the work-release program, and we would help them stay busy through programs like Celebrate Recovery, AA, parenting classes, anger management, and to make sure they are plugged into church,” he said.
After hearing the opposition and concerns from the neighboring community, Pastor Gevan Spinney requested the planning commission discard the request on behalf of the church.
A substitute motion was made to rescind the variance request and it passed unanimously.
“I told the community that if it was not something that was wanted, if we didn’t have the support of the neighbors and the commission, then we wouldn’t press it,” Spinney said. “We began looking for property for this mission two years ago. We believe in this program and in restoring lives, but we also believe in being a good neighbor. After praying about it and hearing the concerns and wishes of the community, this is not something we want to push. We will continue to pray, seeking guidance and a solution.”
During Spinney’s address to the commission and opposition, he suggested that some in the audience may “hate” him or his opinion.
An audience member addressed the pastor and said not to accuse him of hating.
After a period of open comments and loud discussion, the meeting was called to order.
Commission member Rev. Robert Whitaker addressed the room.
“What we really need to understand is this process and the proper way to resolve a difference of opinion. Whether it would have been approved, only God knows now. Is it a good program? Yes it is. Is it the best place to put it? The community has shown it is not.
“The community does not want it, so that needs to be respected,” he continued. “What also needs to be respected is this room, at all times. It is the right of people to voice their opinion. The wrong thing to do is to stand up and argue in a public forum. We can do a better job of being citizens. When we come to this type of meeting, we need to conduct ourselves in the proper manner.”
Concerns continued to be voiced, which focused on whether FBC of Haughton would attempt other means of pursuing the zoning variance.
“I give you my word, I will respect the concerns of the community,” Spinney said. “I will be in prayer about what to do with the property we purchased. I won’t ask for an appeal or anything like that.”
Commission member Sarah Haynes commented the issue might be resolved in a way beyond foresight.
“I think that only God knew what this meeting’s outcome would be,” Haynes said. “I think there has been a lot of seed sown today in people’s minds. We know we need to think of where a good location might be and suggestions have been made. I do think good has come out of this, and I hope that we can take away positive things from this meeting and discussion.”