By various neighbors of Harbor Church.

Before 2008, the centerpiece of our Midtown neighborhood was a church, a school and a park.  Life in our corner of Ventura rotates around this open space. It is where we walk our dogs, play with our kids and take them to school. The church, located at 3100 Preble Ave., was a welcome part of our neighborhood. Then, in 2009, Harbor Church began an un-permitted homeless outreach program called Operation Embrace and the slow, steady decline of our neighborhood began. We want the City Council to uphold the laws of Ventura and uphold the Planning Commission’s denial of a Conditional Use Permit in October 2013. We have been through a two-year municipal process that has required us to endure a homeless program that should never have been started in the first place.  

On Jan. 27, the City Council held a six-hour appeal hearing. Six hours. This followed the three months the planning commission took to reach its decision. This is also after countless man-hours required for city staff to compile its reports. It is astounding that with all the public information and testimony, the City Council then asked for additional information from the school district, the police department and Los Posas Children’s Center. All three credible organizations have looked closely and objectively at the situation and arrived at the same conclusion: bad location.

• Ventura Unified School District held a special hearing and issued a resolution that the location was not appropriate.

• Assistant Chief of Police Dave Wilson provided statistics showing how demand on police services in the neighborhood surrounding the Harbor Church has increased by more than 60 percent since it began homeless services. The rest of Ventura has only had a single-digit increase.

• Los Posas Children’s Center (which provides daycare services abutting the church) gave written testimony on how the services directly and negatively affect the children at its Blanche Reynolds School location.

• Even Sam Gallucci, lead pastor at Harbor Church and the founder of Operation Embrace, has stated since 2009 that 3100 Preble Ave. is a less than ideal location.

Although this is the first time the City Council has been asked to make a ruling on the denial of the CUP by the Ventura Planning Commission, it is not the first time the City Council has made a decision on where it is appropriate to conduct homeless services in Ventura. In 2009, the City Council was asked to decide if the same operators could conduct these services at the Kingdom Center on Thompson Avenue. 

The City Council voted to suspend the decision for a later date. Rather than comply with the City Council’s decision, Operation Embrace withdrew its permit application and simply continued Operation Embrace at 3100 Preble Ave. Operation Embrace, led by Galluci, was savvy enough to know it needed permits to operate out of the Kingdom Center located in a busy business/commercial zone — but had no idea this might be necessary in an R-1 zone? This disregard for the neighborhood is especially galling when there are several other zones throughout the city that do allow these services without a permit.

Our neighborhood continues to be negatively impacted by the services offered at 3100 Preble Ave. Even with the pressure of public scrutiny, the site has not successfully monitored the behavior of the people seeking services. The school has been put under lock-down at least twice as homeless have been located in the school yard. Police guns have been drawn in our neighborhood as a vagrant running from the parking lot of 3100 Preble Ave. was arrested for a brutal battery witnessed by kindergarteners.

This simple zoning issue is being spun into a religious rights issue. We have heard the inspiring testimony of many describing how their hope has been restored by the ministry of the church. However, Do their religious rights, however, outweigh a neighborhood’s need for public safety, and that of our children at school next door?

Those running 3100 Preble Ave. are twisting Ventura’s municipal code to fit their personal mission. Showers, daily meals, food pantry and mail service are not uses allowed in an R-1 zone regardless of whether it is conducted by a religious institution or business. R-1 zones in Ventura must continue as protected. Every day our neighborhood is negatively affected by 70-100 people making their way to and from 3100 Preble Ave. Your own quiet residential neighborhood could be next.

The City Council reconvenes at 6 p.m. on March 3 to review the city staff’s answers to its questions. Operation Embrace will once again bring Stanford law students in to give testimony on behalf of the church. This is not an emotional issue of religious freedom. This is a municipal zoning issue that needs to be reduced to the facts. It is the responsibility of the Ventura City Council to uphold the planning commission’s denial. Enough is enough. It is time to return the centerpiece of our neighborhood to what it should always have been, a park, a school and a church, not a no-strings-attached, six-days-a-week homeless outreach program.

Authors include Julie Salomonson, Suzannah Underwood, James Calhoun, Matt Bowman, Mari Sgro and Sean Feeney.