UU Church in Auburn ordered to remove homeless encampment, clean up trash and waste

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Sep. 23—AUBURN — The city has issued a notice of multiple local zoning and state law violations against the First Universalist Church of Auburn, and ordered the church to remove the homeless encampment that popped up on its lawn over the summer.

According to the notice of violations, which was addressed to the Rev. Jodi Hayashida, city and church officials have been discussing for months the encampment and how the church has been helping connect homeless people with resources and offering a safe space for them to camp overnight.

When the parties met Aug. 24, there were five tents on the Pleasant Street property, with seven people camping overnight. Those numbers have fluctuated throughout the summer.

The encampment is clearly visible from the road and has drawn noise, smell and other complaints from multiple local businesses and neighbors.

According to the notice of violations issued by Planning and Permitting Director Eric Cousens and Code Compliance Officer Cy Wilkinson, the Aug. 24 meeting was intended for the parties to settle on a "proposed set of standards and timelines to limit the public nuisance created by allowing groups to camp on the church property, and specifically address violations created by the change in use" of church grounds.

The city's notice asserts five specific violations:

— Camping and overnight tenting is not permitted in the zoning district where the church is located;

— The church has changed the "use" of its property to allow tents and overnight camping without permits, in violation of the city's zoning ordinance;

— Human waste, trash, food waste, debris, odors of waste and flies have been observed at the property, in violation of Maine's health and welfare laws;

— Overnight camping and tenting has resulted in the disposal of human waste on church grounds, public urination and the temporary installation of a portable toilet, in violation of Maine's plumbing code;

— There have been multiple calls for service at the property, including 10 calls for police and/or emergency services between Aug. 24 when city and church officials met and Sept. 13 when the notice was issued, violating the city's Disorderly House Ordinance.

The church has been ordered to end the overnight camping, to clean up the waste and remove odors on the property by Thursday, according to the notice. If the church refuses to address these issues, the notice makes very clear that the city's Planning and Permitting Office will "refer this to the police department for potential additional enforcement."

According to the notice of violations, in early September the church's board of directors met and issued a response to the standards and timeline that city and church officials discussed in August, explaining that "the Church would be unwilling or unable to commit to certain conditions of the proposal that would be required for the City to consider delaying enforcement" of state laws and city ordinances.

Church and city officials met again Sept. 9 to continue discussions about the encampment and what the city defined as "the significant number of complaints, calls for service and violations occurring that are related to or a result of the camping at the property," which city officials say are straining city resources.

By that time, the encampment had grown and people were seen sleeping on the ground or near the sidewalk without tents.

At that meeting, city officials said they had continued to receive complaints from businesses and neighbors and warned church officials the city "must compel" the church to follow local ordinances and state laws.

According to the city's notice, the disposal of waste is a particular problem for neighbors and businesses because "soiled toilet paper has been observed on neighboring properties" and there were complaints of toilet paper blowing around the neighborhood.

Under the city's Disorderly House Ordinance, a "disorderly house" is defined as a place where police visit three or more times in any 30-day period in response to situations that are created "by the owner, tenants, or owner's or tenants' cohabitees, guests or invitees that would have a tendency to unreasonably disturb the community" and the neighborhood.

Those behaviors include loud music, loud noise or fights, or any reasonable suspicion that illegal drug use or sales occur at the property.

According to Auburn Police Department records, police responded to the encampment 13 times in August, including a report of children being out after curfew, burglary and damage to property, report of drug use, medical attention needed for drug users, shoplifting from nearby Hannaford supermarket, and a handful of general complaints. One of the calls — on Aug. 9 — came from a person staying in the encampment, calling "to make sure they were allowed to stay."

Between Sept. 3 and 18, police responded to six calls, including several arguments, medical attention needed for drug users, and one call reporting a suspicious condition from someone that police termed a "paranoid neighbor."

Although the city has set Sept. 29 as the deadline for compliance for the church to avoid further legal action, the church has asked campers to move out Saturday.

If the church is not able to clear and clean the property by the city's deadline, the notice says the city may issue a citation and fine the church $105, and the city would reissue the notice of violation. If that fine is not paid or the second notice is ignored, the church could face additional fines that would climb if violations mount.

The city could also decide, according to the notice, to initiate a land use complaint in court, and if the city prevails the court could issue a fine of between $100 and $2,500 per violation per day, and the church would have to reimburse the city's legal fees.

The church does have the option to appeal the notice of violations to the Auburn Board of Appeals within 30 days from the date the notice was issued.

The Rev. Hayashida did not respond to a message for comment, and no one answered the phone at the church office Wednesday.