City Council unanimously rejected a zoning change request that would have allowed a private company to lease a facility from an Eastside church to operate a migrant youth shelter.

City Council accepted the recommendation from the Zoning Commission, which voted in November to reject a request from VisionQuest to rezone a Second Baptist Church community center that would be used to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant youth. Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), and Councilman Clatyon Perry (D10) were marked absent. 

After the vote, an attorney representing Second Baptist Church said the church was keeping its options open. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (R-LUPA) protects religious organizations from zoning discrimination, he argued to Council members before they voted down the zoning request.

“[The City Council] made their decision and we’re going to assess the steps to take next to protect the church,” said attorney Alexander Reuter of Detroit-based Dalton & Tomich.

In October, another Dalton & Tomich attorney, Daniel Dalton, sent a letter to City Council threatening to take legal action if they denied the zoning request. Though Reuter did not say whether the church had decided to sue the City, he said it was “always an option.” Church officials have said providing shelter for migrant youth ties in with their religious mission of helping the less fortunate.

“That’s what the federal law is there for, to protect the exercise of religion and provides an avenue to do that through the court system,” Reuter said.

The zoning change request would have changed the church facility from an “arts and entertainment” zoning designation to a “commercial” one, allowing the space to be used for a human services campus. The church applied for the rezoning with the intention of increasing the occupancy limit of its community center from 19 to 90 and housing unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant boys. VisionQuest, the company that would operate the shelter, signed a preliminary lease worth $3.2 million with the church.

Chris Myers, director of federal programs at VisionQuest, said after the meeting that the company is looking at all options, including operating at other facilities and potential legal action.

“We believe we have the legal right to be there, so we’re looking at all options,” he said.

“These kids are detained at the border in cages,” Myers added. “I’m not sure where folks want to put them. There’s a lot of hyperbole in there [from public comments], but a shelter is not a detention center.”

Almost two dozen members of the public spoke on the zoning matter at the City Council meeting, with more than half opposing the zoning change, often criticizing national immigration policy. RAICES CEO and attorney Jonathan Ryan, whose nonprofit organization provides free legal services to immigrants, dismissed the idea that the shelter was not a detention center.

“They want you to focus on the bright bedspreads, the push for reunification … but we know for every child, there’s a prosecutor working to deport her before reunification [with her family] can take place,” Ryan said.

Reuter told City Council that Second Baptist Church should be able to lease their space for religious purposes.

“Second Baptist Church is a faith community that is dedicated to worshipping God through the directives of the Bible,” he said. “Charity, caring for the needy … are all central tenets to the church’s vision. Today they have been called again by God to continue to expand and further their ministries. The present application seeks to let them answer that call.”

VisionQuest has a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to operate two migrant shelters in the San Antonio area. The company had looked at opening one in Universal City, but have been blocked there as well; on Nov. 19, the Universal City Council rejected a zoning request from VisionQuest to open a shelter in a former elementary school, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

 

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.