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Charity operation clashes with city

A Brainerd woman has run afoul of the city's Planning Department after running a charity room out of her house. LeeAnne Marie Smoot, 922 S. Seventh St., is receiving donations at her residence which she then offers free of charge to those in need...

A Brainerd woman has run afoul of the city's Planning Department after running a charity room out of her house.

LeeAnne Marie Smoot, 922 S. Seventh St., is receiving donations at her residence which she then offers free of charge to those in need who could use the items.

Ninety percent of the donations Smoot receives are clothes, she said, but can also include kitchenware like pots and pans and sometimes a small appliance like a toaster. It's for people who have come upon hard times and need charity but may not want to ask for it.

"I've come across so many situations of people losing their homes, or fires, or domestic abuse-type stuff," Smoot said. "Where they just have to pick up and leave and start all over."

The operation began as a Facebook group called the Charity Room, which Smoot started in December. It grew in popularity until February or March, when she offered to start posting items on the site for those that were too busy.

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"I started just collecting some things to put on the front porch," Smoot said. "And people would come and take it, drop off, whatever."

Despite Smoot's best intentions, she's unable to run the operation from her residence, city Planner Mark Ostgarden said.

"Even if it is free, we have to say 'sorry, you have to stop this,'" Ostgarden said. "It might be noble, and we commend you for your civic duty, but you can't do it from home."

Ostgarden said there's two major reasons driving the city's response to Smoot's operation.

One, her residence actually sits in a section of the city zoned for commercial use, even though there's residences on the block.

"Her property is a nonconforming use, a single family dwelling is not a permitted use in a commercial district," Ostgarden said. "She can be there, can continue to live there and can sell it as residential, but she can't expand it."

Smoot is expanding her nonconforming use by operating the charity room out of her home, Ostgarden said.

The other reason for the city's position is a similar situation last year with a property on 13th Street, Ostgarden said. The homeowner there was operating a similar donation operation, but soon progressed to the point where "his yard became a junkyard."

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"We can't turn our back and say it's a good cause," Ostgarden said. "That gets us into more trouble than not."

Ostgarden sent a letter to Smoot informing her of her noncompliance, which resulted in both parties leaving voicemails for each other and another letter from the city of Brainerd to Smoot. Both sides have yet to speak over the phone or in person about the issue.

Smoot said the first letter from the city said her business "is illegal and needs to be shut down immediately." Smoot's voicemail response explained her view that her operation wasn't a business.

Smoot said a responding voicemail from Ostgarden said she still needed to stop her operation "without any explanation of any statutes" she may be violating.

Smoot posted a photo of the second letter the city sent to her on Facebook, because "it's just ludicrous, and a lot of people are standing behind me."

Smoot still operates the Charity Room out of her garage, where she said volunteers help her organize the items people drop off.

"I don't have a messy yard...it's contained, I'm not bothering anybody," Smoot said. "All I'm doing is helping people."

The Charity Room isn't registered as a nonprofit organization, so Smoot said she doesn't know why she would need permits to operate it.

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"To me, it's just about the city wanting money," Smoot said. "Well, there's nothing to get your hands in."

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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