When a zoning dispute arises between a ministry and a municipality, the ministry is not always the one to sue.

In January, the Sacramento City Council voted 6 to 2 to file a State Superior Court zoning and land use suit against Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit organization that feeds the hungry and shelters the indigent poor. The $1.6 million-a-year ministry runs 17 programs with the help of 1,200 volunteers on three acres 10 blocks north of the state capitol.

The city contends tension began when Loaves & Fishes converted a former auto storage yard into a park without approval in 1995. After city officials learned about the project, inspections resulted in citations for 33 violations, mostly dealing with safety infractions in adjacent buildings.

But the suit contends that the ministry's Sunday feeding program, a youth center for runaways, a school for homeless children, and a mental health clinic are public nuisances because the ministry failed to obtain zoning approval before expanding them.

Loaves & Fishes filed a countersuit March 10. Tina Thomas, one of 15 pro bono attorneys representing Loaves & Fishes, says the city is violating the ministry's equal protection and free exercise of religion rights.

Council representative Steve Cohn says the city would have preferred mediation, but because Loaves & Fishes refused to obey existing codes a suit had to be filed as a symbolic gesture. Thomas says the city canceled mediation talks scheduled for last October.

"The crux of the problem is that Loaves & Fishes really has outgrown its campus," Cohn told CT.

LeRoy Chatfield, executive director of Loaves & Fishes for 10 of its 14 years, maintains that the ministry obtained a dozen special permits from 1988 to 1993 that make its operation legal.

Thomas says nearly all the city code violations have been corrected. The ministry has refused to make some minor modifications, Thomas says, because the city tried to place conditions on permits that already had been approved.

Virtually all of the ministry's 1,000 daily clients walk to the facility. One out of four has mental or emotional problems. "They're just trying to survive," Chatfield says.

"Some drink a lot, some do drugs, some are criminals," counters Cohn. "If they were all well-behaved it wouldn't be such an issue."

Chatfield believes the city is bent on dismantling Loaves & Fishes because it is located in a targeted redevelopment area, a charge Cohn denies.

"Loaves & Fishes places their mission above everything," Cohn says. "There's not room for rigid ideology when the neighborhood is disrupted."

"There is no credible evidence that we are not a good neighbor," Chatfield says. Loaves & Fishes spends $40,000 a year on litter collection, weed control, and graffiti removal.

Chatfield finds it odd that the city is trying to deter a ministry that accepts no government funds at a time when government agencies are reducing welfare services.

"All we're trying to do is feed people who are in need," Chatfield told CT. "Beating us over the head with a lawsuit ultimately will lead to civil disobedience."

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