SOS calls site plan review 'discriminatory,' city calls it 'routine' as court battle looms

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SOS director John Burns, Rochester's SOS headquarters and Rochester City manager Blaine Cox. (Courtesy photos)

ROCHESTER - Rochester's City Manager said on Monday that the city has not yet received the verbiage of a lawsuit filed last week by SOS to prevent them from having to file a "change of use" application, but assures the plaintiffs in the suit that the city's application form is not discriminatory and simply asks for more information about how the peer-based counseling and recovery organization operates.

The change of use application - also called a minor site plan application - is "just a two page form seeking basic info," Rochester City Manager Blaine Cox said on Monday. "It wouldn't take long to complete."

Meanwhile, John Burns, director of SOS Recovery, lashed out at the city on Monday saying they have no intention of complying with the demand, calling it "discriminatory." Burns said there were many churches in the city doing outreach with vulnerable populations that weren't being harassed like he was.

SOS Recovery Services operates out of the First Congregational Church on South Main Street. The church also hosts AA meetings, a Dover Adult Learning Center and other help groups, but it's SOS that has drawn the most scrutiny by the city, scrutiny that began with a June petition that said illegal drug activity was rampant in the neighborhood and that the homeless and drug using community were using the church as sanctuary.

The petition, which had 66 signatures including several downtown business owners, concluded that drug activity had increased in the past several months.

It also claimed that SOS staff and members of the First United Congregational Church where their offices are located had encouraged drug users from outside Rochester to come and live at the church.

Soon after petitioners presented their claims, the City Council in July determined they were unfounded, but shortly thereafter, code enforcement and zoning officials from the city showed up unannounced at SOS to inspect their operation, which led to the review process being implemented.

Cox said on Monday nothing specific city officials saw prompted to issue the change of use request, adding it was a general consensus that SOS was doing something more than that of a religious, church-based nature.

Meanwhile, in mid-July The Rochester Voice published the results of a six-month analysis that showed the overwhelming percentage of police calls coming from that area of the downtown originated at three contiguous locations on South Main Street, including the church, itself, the Rochester Public Library and the immediate area around Friendly's restaurant.

In September, the city ordered the center closed until the minor site plan operation was completed. When SOS refused, the city filed a petition in District Court, demanding more than $23,650 in penalties, which ultimately drew last week's electronic filing for an injunction against the city's filing and monetary demands.

Cox said he couldn't respond to the filing specifically, because he still hadn't seen the actual document.

It is expected that the city will file a responding brief once they have viewed the document.

SOS Recovery is underwritten by Goodwin Community Health of Dover, where SOS has another office in commercial space at the corner of Broadway and Central Avenue.

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