Fate of Haven of Mercy lies in hands of Washington County, TN Chancery Court

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The fate of a local homeless shelter lies in the hands of the Washington County, Tennessee Chancery Court.

The Haven of Mercy failed to meet fire and building codes in the summer of 2020, and occupants were forced to vacate Friday.

However, the shelter was granted access into the building until a hearing with the Washington County, TN chancellor takes place Monday, March 1.

News Channel 11 dug deeper to find why the City of Johnson City said the shelter is unfit to operate.

Johnson City city attorney Sunny Sandos said the city cannot formally inspect the Haven of Mercy because the owners of the building have not provided the city proof of floor plans done by professional architects or engineers.

“The stamp drawings allow for the licensed trained professionals to go in and apply for permits from the city,” Sandos said. “Permits have to be applied before the city has any ability to go in and inspect work. The city cannot inspect un-permitted, illegal work. To date, there have been no permits pulled so the city does not have the ability to go in and inspect any work that has been performed.”

These are the first two steps in getting the building up to code, which is something that was brought to the city’s attention when the shelter failed the 20-page fire inspection on June 12 conducted by the Johnson City Fire Department.

The report cites things like “too much storage” and issues with “electrical wiring”.

Following the fire inspection, Sandos told Kassahun the building code department was informed of the conditions which resulted in the trades inspection. The city did a courtesy inspection report on June 24, 2020, which shows it failed to meet code requirements.

The report shows things like “freezers blocking disconnects” and “electrical issues”.

Note: The Board of Dwellings Standards and Review (BDSR) hears building code violations. Municipal court hears fire code violations.

“From that point, the building code side of the process had begun. There were multiple points of communication in September,” Sandos explained. “In September, it was made clear that in order to clear the code violations, you have to have a licensed architect or engineer and that’s a state requirement. There’s a Tennessee Code annotated section in section 62-2-102 that says it is unlawful for the designs to not be provided by these licensed professionals for buildings that are three stories or greater or exceed 5,000 sq ft total. The Haven of Mercy is three floors and it well exceeds that minimum square footage threshold.

A reference of the Tennessee Code can be found here.

“The city is aware that there have been some efforts, some alterations that have taken place inside the Haven but we’re bound by the state requirements that there has to be a licensed architect or engineer that gives that stamp drawings. There have to be licensed professionals that pull permits for the city to go in and inspect,” Sandos said.

However, Sandos explained skipping to step three will not suffice if the first two steps are completed: showing proof of documents and a permit.

City Manager Pete Peterson said, “What we’re after is to be in compliance with state law and to ensure that we do not end up with another tragedy like the John Sevier fire was. We want to work to make sure that the residents of the Haven of Mercy have a safe place to live and to work and eat.”

Peterson worries the shelter could be a place of immediate danger.

“It’s gotten to the point where there’s significant structural things and electrical things that are going to have to be addressed before we can deem the building proper and safe for human habitation,” Peterson said.

In an interview last Thursday, shelter owner and CEO Grant Rockley told News Channel 11 he believed the city has an ulterior motive.

“I just believe the city wants this property, as part of their park development over here, or whatever it is and I just wish they would come straight out and say it, ‘yes, we’d like to have it and we’ll work with you to move you and give you a reasonable price to do so,” he said.

Peterson released this statement about Rockley’s claim:

“We do not own that property and therefore cannot sell it. We do not have a desire to purchase the property. What we do want is a safe building for those tenants.”

Pete Peterson
Johnson City City Manager

Tuesday, News Channel 11 visited the Haven of Mercy to speak with Pastor Rockley. He said he was unavailable to talk but the station crew member was approached by his lawyer, Devon Muse, who informed the station that they would not release a statement until after the hearing on Monday.

We reached out to Muse, via phone on Wednesday.

Muse stated “no proper permit has been pulled”, according to what was stated during the January 28, 2021 virtual BDSR meeting.

“There are other portions, but that one is sufficient. You will hear that the previous attorney for our client and city officials admit that a permit was pulled but the city officials submit that the permit was not properly issued or completed by the electrician.”

Devon Muse
Haven of Mercy’s lawyer

The discussion can be heard between 1:46:00 and 1:48:35 in the YouTube link here.

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