National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

Jubilee land gift stalled by lawsuits


Four years after a parish decided to donate land for an affordable housing development as a Jubilee year gift, the parish reversed its decision and has filed suit to retain control of the land, jeopardizing the project.

The parish’s reversal is part of a series of legal battles that a handful of Catholic social justice activists, Catholic Charities officials and a nonprofit affordable housing developer have fought in their attempts to bring the project to life.

They charge that racism and classism are behind opposition to the housing. If the suit is not settled by July 15, they say they will begin losing a portion of the $3 million raised to build it.

The former pastor of the Church of St. William in Fridley, Minn., Fr. Patrick Kennedy, first proposed donating the vacant land beside the parish church in March 2000. The housing project was to be named Brandes Place in honor of Fr. John Brandes, a former pastor of St. William known for his social activism.

Kennedy told NCR that “in the Jubilee spirit,” St. William held open meetings in 2000, and the parish decided to donate the land, valued at $250,000. The parish teamed with Catholic Charities, which agreed to manage the Section 8 development, and with Community Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit developer, to build it.

Marilyn Wegscheider, recently retired as the parish’s director of pastoral care, social justice and outreach, oversaw much of the church’s planning efforts. She told NCR, “Our staff was touched by the statistic that almost half of homeless people in Anoka County are children, so we wanted it to be for families” She said Fridley, an older Twin Cities suburb, has no homeless shelter.

The development plan calls for 16 townhouse units. Catholic Charities agreed to provide support services for the occupants, and to place a site manager there.

Wegscheider said that when the project was first proposed, some parish and community members objected. She said they didn’t want the development in their neighborhood.

Before fundraising efforts were complete, Kennedy was transferred. According to Wegscheider, the church’s new pastor, Fr. Joseph Whalen, at first expressed strong support for the project, preaching about it from the pulpit.

Wegscheider said Whalen withdrew support after the Fridley city council voted down a zoning request in October 2002. The request was voted down during the last of a series of contentious city planning and council meetings, where objections were voiced by parishioners and neighbors about crime, higher population density, water runoff problems, excessive traffic, new burdens to schools and property values.

Fridley city staff refuted the objections in a report presented at the city council meeting before the final zoning vote. City staff recommended approving the project.

Janet Pope, Community Housing Development Corporation’s asset manager, said some of the issues brought up at the meetings were racist and classist. For example, she said, minutes of one meeting include comments of a woman saying, “All these people coming in with their culture, the way they raise their children, and their work ethic is not appropriate” for her daughter.

Community Housing Development Corporation decided to fight the council’s decision in court. Its suit charged, among other things, that council members failed to provide any reason for their votes other than neighborhood opposition. Jack Cann, Community Housing lawyer, told NCR, “There’s a line of cases in Minnesota saying that neighborhood opposition to a project is not a sufficient basis for an adverse council ruling.”

Even though archdiocesan officials continued to voice support for the project, Whalen declined Community Housing’s invitation to be party to the lawsuit. He said the suit lacked “a certain sensitivity to the needs of the community” as the parish was trying to simultaneously “provide housing … [and develop] support for this type of housing in the parish and in the neighborhood.”

When the suit against the city went to mediation, the parish asked to take part, but Community Housing refused, saying the parish had the chance to join the lawsuit but had declined.

The suit was settled in mediation, and the zoning changes approved. They became official in July 2003. However, in January 2004, Whalen and the St. William church council filed their own suit against the city, and the project stalled again.

They claimed the city had accepted an invalid land plat. The plat, necessary to transfer land, was signed by Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Harry Flynn. They said it should also have been signed by the parish board secretary.

According to the parish’s lawyer, Fred Kueppers, Community Housing had submitted the plat to the city without consulting the parish. The plat included several storm and utility easements on parish property, he said, and the parish should have been allowed to consider whether or not to approve them.

Archdiocesan chancellor William Fallon said in retrospect he thinks he shouldn’t have asked Flynn to sign the plat without the approval of the church board. Now, he said, he’d like to see the case mediated so that the project can once again go forward. Whalen said he hopes that “some type of project” will still be built. “Whether it is this particular project with this particular developer remains to be seen.”

Kennedy said he is unsure of Brandes Places’s prospects. “The whole idea for me was that it was done in the context of the Jubilee.” He said, “That part of it seems to have been forgotten.”

Gill Donovan is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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