HARTVILLE  A plan by the local non-profit Love Our Community to convert the former Lake Center Christian School, at 1116 Woodland St. SW, into apartments for the homeless was momentarily put on hold April 16.

Hartville Village Council overrode two village Board of Zoning Appeals recommendations - to grant the group a variance allowing the “community development” project on fewer than 10 acres, and to allow the operation in a residentially zoned area. 

A third variance, granting a 16-foot rear setback, was approved.

Kelli Viscounte, founder and executive director of Love Our Community, said support for the project by the community has thus far been good. She said she was surprised by the Council vote.

“I was completely surprised,” she said.  “It’s frustrating.”

Viscounte said the fate of the Love Our Community building in light of the zoning denials, however, is only part of the group’s overall mission.

“We are going to continue to explore options,” she said. “We are going to continue to do all we can, legally, with the building. The building gave us more of an ability to create relationships and change, but our mission is still the same.”

A Christian non-profit, Love Our Community was launched formed in 2018 by Viscounte, a former RiverTree Lake Church outreach coordinator, to meet the housing, food, clothing, and counseling needs of Lake Township residents. Viscounte said its efforts have been made possible by the community taking ownership, with “hundreds of thousands” of dollars donated and thousands of volunteers donating their time.

The group has assisted with victims of house fires through its Clothing Closet program, as well as summer meals and a Christmas event.

The 50-year-old Love Our Community building was purchased by the group through donations, Viscounte said. The long-range goal, she said, is for Love Our Community groups to spread to other communities.

The plan for the building included a full-time “anchor family” living on the ground floor, with four apartments upstairs, one a studio “emergent need” apartment for those facing a crises such as a house fire.

Plans also include a common area and a commercial kitchen, which Viscounte said would be used by other groups; a space for job training, provide breakfast for students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and a possible mobile meal service for families; free washers and dryers for those families involved with the organization; public restrooms including a handicap-accessible shower; and an out building to be transformed into offices and space for medical visits or counseling services.

The anchor family would be act as the responsible party at the house as well as provide a family environment that Viscounte said would be more beneficial than many other transient housing situations.

Prior to the April 16 vote, Councilman Jeff Kozy said he was concerned with the around the clock responsibility of the anchor family and confirmed with Viscounte that the family would be provided “back-up.” 

Councilman Jim Sullivan also asked if security cameras could be installed on the property.

Residents, meanwhile, packed village hall to oppose the Love Our Community building. They voiced concerns over noise, crime, fair housing laws, and the facility being located in a residential area.

Wagler Avenue resident Larry Kayla said he was worried about the proposed public restrooms and laundry facilities, and added that offering housing to Lake Township residents could violate fair housing laws. Visounte later stated that Love Our Community’s legal counsel has assured them that the project did not violate and fair housing statues.

Kayla’s wife, Carol Kayla, said she and her husband are also concerned with Love Our Community tenants cutting through their lawn.

“We worked hard and made good decisions to live as we do,” she said. “We are proud of our condo association. Now to have this plopped into our back yard.”

Other residents asked if the property would have adequate parking and said they were concerned that the house could draw a criminal element.

“If history has shown anything, it’s that homeless shelters will decay our neighborhoods,” said Wagler Avenue resident Tom Ciress. “If Hartville wants to remain great, it must not allow homeless shelters in the neighborhoods.”

Wagler Avenue resident and school counselor, Jennifer Millhoan, said she was completely in support of Love Our Community’s mission, but did not agree with the house being located in a residential neighborhood.

“If it was one street north on Sunnyside (Street), I’d be for it,” she said.

Lake Local Schools Superintendent Kevin Tobin expressed support for the Love Our Community home.

“We will hold (residents) to high standards, and they will hold themselves to high standards,” Tobin said. “I think many people are picturing a terrible halfway house in an urban environment.”

Hartville Police Chief Larry Dordea added that the police and fire departments would continue to respond to resident calls of any potential crimes or emergencies at the facility.

“We are not going to allow people running through your yards. But sometimes the fear of change is greater than the change, so I ask you not to prejudge,” Dordea said. “We serve you, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also serve them.”

Other actions

- Village Council also upheld a board of zoning appeals recommendation to approve a sign variance allowing Starbucks to erect three signs at its 832 W. Maple Street location.  The variance applied to the number of signs allowed, not the size of the signs.  Councilwoman Bev Green voted no.

- The $30,200 sale of a village owned parcel in the village Industrial park to Aleksey Cherevko was accepted.

- A lease agreement with the new owner of the Hartville Locker Service building for parking area use was approved. Mayor Cynthia Billings said the lease terms remained the same as they had been with the previous property owner.

- Council also approved a contract with Nichols Landscaping to provide landscaping and mowing service for the 2019 season; the transfer of $80,000 from the general fund to the street repair fund for regular operations; the transfer of $120,000 from the general fund to the capital equipment reserve fund; and the transfer of funds from the general fund and sewer fund to the accrued sick/vacation fund.