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Alma votes to approve rezoning for refugee shelter

Alma city attorney Tony Costanzo admonishes audience members who interrupted a city commissioner during a debate over a refugee shelter in Alma on Tuesday. The city commission voted 6-2 to approve a rezoning request and allow the shelter.
Brett Dahlberg
Alma city attorney Tony Costanzo admonishes audience members who interrupted a city commissioner during a debate over a refugee shelter in Alma on Tuesday. The city commission voted 4-2 to approve a rezoning request and allow the shelter.

A mid-Michigan city that has been consumed by a debate over immigration this summer has taken its first step toward welcoming young Central American refugees.

The Alma city commission voted Tuesday to rezone a vacant nursing home and allow its conversion to a shelter for boys who have crossed the southern U.S. border without their families and are seeking asylum.

The commission met in the Alma High School auditorium to accommodate the crowd that would have been too large for the usual venue at City Hall.

Things went smoothly at first. The commission approved routine budget amendments for the public works and water distribution offices and got the normal reports from city departments.

Then, the commission got to the big-ticket item: the rezoning request that determines whether Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services can turn the former Warwick Living Center, owned by the Michigan Masonic Home, into a shelter for young asylum-seekers.

Shelters in places like Alma, far from the southern border, have been growing increasingly important to the federal government, as the number of children crossing into the U.S. without their families is growing, and shelters near the border are reaching capacity.

Alma officials have been hearing from their constituents on the issue for months.

“The volume and intensity of the material was almost overwhelming,” said commissioner Nick Piccolo. “Passion ran high, and certainly common ground was in very short supply.”

Piccolo cast a vote in favor of rezoning. He said most of the opposition he heard was based on fear – but not evidence – of the shelter funneling crime into Alma.

“That fear is real, and it deserves acknowledgement. That said, unexamined fear and unbridled emotion are not good standards for making policy. It can make you miss the mark,” Piccolo said, explaining his decision.

Commissioner Michelle Pitts, speaking in opposition to rezoning, pointed out that the city’s planning commission had already recommended against the proposal last month.

“Our task is to, number one, consider the recommendation from the planning commission. If we’re not going to take their recommendation, then we should dispose of the planning commission,” she said.

The planning commission said at the time that the community was too deeply divided on the rezoning proposal to determine whether it was in the best interest of the city.

Alma city attorney Tony Costanzo said he can’t remember a time when the full city commission overruled the zoning board’s recommendation, but he said it’s possible and legal.

Most of the time, speakers at Tuesday’s meeting made their remarks uninterrupted. Sometimes a city administrator gaveled an obstreperous audience to silence or shouted at interrupters to wait their turn.

Commissioner Audra Stahl spoke to the audience about the difficulty of serving in city government in such a polarized community.

“I had no idea that I would be signing up to have my privacy invaded, my character assassinated, or my integrity called into question,” she said. “Excuse my language here, but I have to wonder who in the hell would ever want to sit up here in these seats.”

The chair of Alma’s planning commission quit his position at the meeting. Don Ayers used his turn at the microphone to submit his resignation, telling city leaders his job wasn’t fun anymore.

“I’m just tired,” Ayers said. “I’ve been called every name you can think of. I’m done with it.”

The meeting drew an international audience. Ary Aan is an Alma College student from Delhi, who spoke during the public comment period. Despite the interruptions and recriminations, he said, the proceedings were inspiring.

Aan said he witnessed a type of local governance he’d never see at home.

“Debating something in a small city in America – whether a housing-zoning thing should happen under air-conditioned walls protected by the police – how beautiful is that? That doesn’t happen anywhere [else] in the world!” he said to applause.

As the vote came in – 4-2 in favor of rezoning for the shelter – the audience was hushed. They had already been admonished for talking out of turn by the mayor, and the vice mayor, and the city attorney.

After the meeting, Robi Rodriguez vowed to fight the commission’s decision.

“There’s going to be recall petitions,” to remove some city officials from office, said Rodriguez, who leads one of the local groups opposed to rezoning.

Maria Vetere, on the other hand, was thrilled.

“I’m so, so, so relieved. You know, I just – I wasn’t expecting this at all. Not at all,” she said.

Vetere said she was born in Mexico and now lives in Alma. She said she knows the type of poverty that children seeking asylum in the U.S. are trying to flee.

“I know because I’ve lived that too,” she said.

Vetere said hearing opponents of the Alma shelter portray the young asylum-seekers who would be housed there as liars and criminals had made her think about moving to a more welcoming city.

The vote in favor of rezoning did not immediately change her mind. Vetere said she might still make the move, but at least she’d be leaving a city she feels is headed in the right direction.

Corrected: September 15, 2021 at 6:23 AM EDT
A previously version of this story incorrectly stated the City Commission's vote in favor of the refugee shelter was 6-2. The vote was actually 4-2, and this story has been updated to reflect that.
Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.