Noe Valley Voice September 1997

Church Food Program OK, But Thrift Store Is Out

By Tim Kelley

Holiness Temple in Christ won one and lost one this summer, in a dispute with neighbors over the church's food and thrift store operations at 28th and Church streets.

At a morning hearing July 9, the Police Department revoked the church's secondhand store permit. But later that day, the Board of Permit Appeals allowed a free food giveaway to continue on Saturdays, noon to 2 p.m., at the church.

A small group of about six neighbors made the same accusations at both proceedings. Valley Street resident Darlene Crisp charged that church pastor Joesiah Bell had refused to remove a pay phone, located in front of the church, which she claimed was used for gang activities and drug deals. Getting rid of the phone had been one of the conditions when the church won its thrift store permit last January.

Crisp and the neighbors also complained that church officials had left cardboard boxes and debris in the doorway and on the sidewalk after food distribution hours and that exits had been blocked in an unsafe manner. They also alleged that church signs failed to conform with city regulations.

Reverend Bell responded that racism was the real motivation behind the charges. He accused his accusers of trying to drive the historically African-American congregation out of Noe Valley with a campaign of petty complaints. The church, he said, could not remove the pay phone because of a long-term contract with the phone company. As for the rubbish, he insisted it was left for only short periods of time before pickup.

The Fire Department, as well as building inspectors and the Public Health Department, Bell said, had repeatedly inspected the church premises -- all at the behest of this same group of neighbors.

The Police Department's decision to revoke the thrift store permit hinged on failure to remove the pay phone, which Bell admits he did originally agree to. However, one informed Police Department source reports that such a condition is "unheard of" for a secondhand permit. Normally, the source says, police look only at the possibility of the store being used to fence stolen goods.

Over at the Board of Permit Appeals, the neighbors were asking the city to undo a March decision by the Planning Department. Planning had found that food distribution was a "permitted accessory use" to the "principal permitted use" of a church -- in effect, that no special permit was needed for the church to conduct its food program.

At the July hearing, the Appeals Board again sided with the church. It ruled unanimously that it had no grounds upon which to reverse the earlier decision. Appeals Board president Carole Cullum said the neighbors' points were "totally irrelevant to the issue at hand."

Several board members also commented on the obvious ill feeling shown during testimony. Cullum suggested that the two parties seek mediation, but noted she couldn't require it. Crisp refused her suggestion, saying, "That wouldn't resolve anything. We need some enforcement."

Since the hearings, Holiness Temple has stopped its thrift store operations and taken out a permit for stucco repairs. In late August, the church repainted the building a bright cornflower blue.

But the small Pentecostal congregation remains disturbed about the attitude of some members of the community. "Every business around here has things on the sidewalk," says Pastor Bell. "But with us it's, `Negro, get out. We don't want you doing business in Noe Valley.'"

Still, he says, "The best thing is to put it behind us." The weekly handouts of groceries supplied by the San Francisco Food Bank will continue, he adds. And he has set the pay phone so that it will not accept incoming calls.

As for the complaining neighbors, none has been willing to comment on the record. However, one says that both sides, now that they have fought to a draw, appear to be ready to let the dispute drop.

In August, both the Fire and Building departments reported that they had no outstanding complaints or violations in their files related to the church. And Jack Breslin, assistant director of health inspectors for the Department of Public Health, gave what is possibly the last word on this long-simmering feud.

He reaffirmed that no permit would be required for the food program, since it involved only nonperishable goods and periodic distribution.

"Frankly," Breslin said, "we have more important things to worry about."