For more than six years, Marti Forman has been searching for a permanent home for Cooperative Feeding Program Inc., the nonprofit agency she heads up that provides hot meals to the needy. And for more than six years, she's encountered nothing but resistance and frustration at every turn.
This year was supposed to be different. This year Forman thought she'd finally found a home. "We thought, 'Yay! We're finally on the home stretch. We're finally there!'" she recalls thinking in a January meeting with Broward county officials.
Sitting beside Forman at that meeting were a civil engineer, an architect, and a local builder, all of whom had volunteered their services to help build Cooperative Feeding a new headquarters building on property it had purchased the year before in unincorporated Broward County. After working for years in scattered church basements and tiny rented spaces, Cooperative Feeding would finally have room to expand and grow.
That was then. Now, four months later, all that's left of Forman's dream is a vacant parcel of useless land and a $130,000 mortgage. The January meeting that had raised her spirits so high ended up dashing them with the news that county zoning statutes would not allow the sort of project Forman had in mind.
To Forman the decision came as a knockdown blow; the agency had already purchased the site (located at 3351 W. Broward Blvd.) just six months earlier and subsequently spent more than $5000 demolishing a vacant building that had stood there.
The decision also left a lingering sense of betrayal, since it took the county more than a year -- from December 1997 to January 1999 -- to get around to letting Forman know that her plans were doomed. Over the course of that same year, Forman and her board members had numerous meetings with various county officials, including several representatives of the very agency -- Code & Zoning Enforcement Division -- that later ruled against her project.
"We were given every green light to go ahead, and that's the only reason we did it," says Louis Abel, president of the Cooperative Feeding board of directors and pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, which cosigned the mortgage. "We don't have this kind of money to throw away."
Fellow board member Martin Kildea, president of Mardi Construction Inc., wonders what he could have done differently. "We went to them from the very first and said, 'Look, tell us if you have any problems.' We kept doing that, for a whole year."
Since its founding in a church basement 13 years ago, Cooperative Feeding has grown into the largest private local provider of hot meals to the needy. Now funded by church donations and a $30,000 grant from the Broward County Human Services Department, the agency has long been frustrated by its lack of a central headquarters building. Currently the agency rents a small office suite in a strip mall in Plantation while at the same time operating a kitchen and pantry in Fort Lauderdale. Both of the spaces are rented. The new headquarters would have doubled the capacity of the kitchen and expanded the agency's services to address problems largely ignored by government.
Especially now that the county has opened its new Homeless Assistance Center (HAC), homeless advocates say there's been more creative energy devoted to hiding the problem of homelessness than solving it. But the HAC is hardly a panacea; it provides few services for the homeless still living on the street.
These were some of the needs Cooperative Feeding was trying to address with the new headquarters building. "In addition to hot meals, we were talking about providing shower facilities and mail drops for walk-ins, intervention counseling -- all sorts of things that the HAC does not provide."
Still, when Forman and Kildea first learned that a vacant property might be available in unincorporated Broward, they proceeded cautiously. Forman's first letter to the county on the subject of the proposed construction is dated December 2, 1997, six months before the agency closed on the purchase. Addressed to Kathy Harris, director of the Broward County Human Services Department, the letter reads: "I would not even begin to move in the direction of spending money for surveys, studies, lien searches, architectural renderings, etc., unless I had an individual at the County who would help us through the maze of red tape we know we must face."
As a result of that letter, Forman says, Harris arranged for her and Kildea to speak with an interagency group called the Development Review Committee (DRC). Forman says the DRC -- the members of which are drawn from all departments that would eventually have to sign off on project plans -- were encouraging and helpful from the start. "We had an architect draw plans," she described the process in a February 17 letter to John Milledge, a member of the county's Homeless Initiative Partnership Advisory Board. "At a 2/4/98 meeting with various county zoning representatives... we were told to remove the words 'warehouse storage' from our sketch since the area was not zoned for warehouses. We retitled that section of the building 'pantry storage.'"
In July 1998, Cooperative Feeding closed on the property. Still the meetings continued, with an array of county officials -- including Jeff Dey from Zoning -- poring over details as small as the size of the parking lot and the location of the dumpster.
Then came the January meeting and the news that the whole project would have to be scrapped because the area's zoning code -- B-2, a combination of residential and business -- would not allow nonprofit social services.
Two years ago the agency faced numerous zoning hassles while trying to purchase the old Musician's Exchange building on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Ultimately the plan was killed by zoning difficulties, and Forman's only consolation was that the agency hadn't been left owning any property that it couldn't use.
Right now the soup kitchen operates out of a rented building on West Broward Boulevard across the street from the Fort Lauderdale police headquarters. Because the lease is month-to-month, Forman is worried that the agency's landlord may kick them out. If that were to happen, there would be quite a few hungry people walking the streets of Broward County. Cooperative Feeding provides 300 hot meals a day, and that's not counting the dry goods (two bags of groceries designed to feed a family of four for a week) supplied by the pantry store. All told, the agency provided 15,600 meals this past March, Kildea says.
None of that has any bearing on County Code and Enforcement Director Shirley Marler's interpretation of the zoning statutes. She points to an e-mail dated May 13, 1997 (several months before the Cooperative Feeding issue had even come up), in which she wrote "... if someone wants to establish a facility to feed or assist or house the homeless, the facility would have to be in a Community Facilities Zoning District." (CFZDs are normally created for specific addresses; to get the site designated as a CFZD, Forman would have to go to the county commission.)
Marler says she has no idea why that message wasn't conveyed to Forman until after the property had been bought. If, however, Forman is looking for someone to blame, Marler suggests the nearest mirror as a likely place to start: "The vast majority of people would, before they actually went and bought property, consult an attorney and go through the due diligence process."
And what of the frequent meetings of the DRC, with its suggestions? "The DRC is an informal committee of department representatives who try to help people through the process on their own time. It is not official."
Although Kildea grants that "perhaps we were somewhat naive in going into this process," he doesn't understand how or why the county would be telling him to add more spaces to the parking lot "and a minute later, in the same meeting, tell us, 'Oh yeah, you've got a bigger problem. You can't do it.'"
Even some experienced zoning attorneys view the county's actions with a quizzical eye: "If you sit down repeatedly with a bunch of department representatives and get to the point of moving around driveways, well, that's a pretty intense look at a project," says Joel Gustafson, a zoning attorney who has been advising Cooperative Feeding on a volunteer basis since the county's decision.
Although Gustafson is hesitant to criticize the county, others aren't shy in voicing their belief that the zoning issue is just a front for an overall effort to force all services for the homeless -- and by extension, the entire issue of homelessness -- into the HAC. "They're just trying to hide the problem," says Forman. "And it's not just the county. The cities are doing it, too."
Meanwhile Gustafson is continuing to talk with county officials, although his main argument is limited to a strained attempt to define a soup kitchen as a "health facility." He's also facing a dilemma in that the more they call attention to their plight, the more the NIMBY effect kicks in. Cooperative Feedings' parcel of land lies tucked among the strip clubs and vacant buildings that line Broward Boulevard west of I-95, an area that is the recipient of a massive revitalization program.
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Bernie Kemp, who lives in neighboring Melrose Park and who serves as president of the Broward Boulevard Revitalization Project, flatly rejects the notion that the central county area needs a soup kitchen. "For a long time, we feel the county commissioners have overlooked Broward Boulevard and basically allowed too many questionable businesses to open up there. Now the neighborhood has a bad taste, and the residents are fed up."
County Commissioner Lori Nance Parrish cites neighbors' concerns when she says that "Sadly, I don't see any obvious solution."
Last week Froman was informed that her county grant would not be renewed. "Certainly we need a miracle," she says.
Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com