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Sarnia ordered to pay court costs for church fight

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Journal Staff

Sarnia must pay River City Vineyard $90,000 to cover a portion of the legal bills the church incurred while trying to prevent its homeless shelter from closing.

The awarding of costs by the Ontario Court of Appeal ends a legal fight that dragged on for years.

Sarnia is also on the hook for the $176,000 it spent on legal fees.

River City Vineyard opened a small men’s homeless shelter in the basement of the Mitton Street church in 2006. But following complaints from some neighbours the city forced it to close in 2014 on the grounds the shelter contravened city zoning bylaws.

But in July a three-member panel found a Superior Court judge had erred in his interpretation of the bylaw and the shelter was in fact a permitted activity.

The larger question of church rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was left unanswered.

Pastoral leader George Esser said River City never wanted to go to court.

“All we tried to do was be a voice for those who were homeless,” he said, adding those who don’t own or occupy property don’t have a say.

“We are still not sure as to why the city would want us to cease helping those in need.”

In awarding costs, the court noted Sarnia had revenue of $109 million in 2013 while church’s budget is $350,000. Only free legal work lawyers did for River City’s allowed it to participate in the suit, it said.

The church is currently preparing a business plan to reopen a shelter with eight to 12 beds.

City staff, meanwhile, have proposed zoning bylaw changes to address church activities, such as soup kitchens and food banks.

Wary councillors have tabled the idea for now.







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