Delawareans came together last summer as 2,000 volunteers gathered to build a home and soup kitchen near Lewes for the Jusst Sooup Ministry.
That massive community effort was seen by millions on Nov. 18, 2011, when “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” profiled the ministry in a two-hour Thanksgiving television special.
That week-long build survived a hurricane, tremors from a Virginia earthquake, a mandatory evacuation and a tornado.
But the Jusst Sooup Ministry is now facing a different kind of storm. On Nov. 7, 2011, the Sussex County Board of Adjustment unanimously ruled that the Rev. Dale Dunning and her family cannot serve food at the Jusst Sooup Ranch located in Cool Spring, just west of Lewes.
The board was acting on Dunning’s application for a special use exception to allow people to be served at the site.
Several neighbors had complained at the Oct. 3 county Board of Adjustment hearing (the board’s decision was delayed until Nov. 7) about the soup kitchen. Most praised Dunning—some extensively—but many worried that a soup kitchen would attract predators, the mentally ill and crime to the area.
The decision means Dunning can still continue to cook and take soup and other food to churches, soup kitchens and shelters just as she has always done. She cannot, however, serve people in the large dining area built adjacent to the kitchen.
The tables are set, but no one will come to eat. The chairs remain empty and no one will see the jars of penny candy or the ice cream soda-style counter that’s waiting for patrons.
Dunning’s ministry will continue and she can use the sparkling new commercial kitchen built for her by the “Extreme Makeover” team, with the help of Schell Brothers, which donated the six-acre property.
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The decision prompted petitions and letters from supporters. One petition immediately sprang up on Facebook and more than 800 people “liked” the petition in the first two days. One Facebook user even suggested that it was time “to occupy Cool Spring.”
There were radio interviews with builder Chris Schell, calls for national media attention, blogs and editorials. County officials were criticized for the way they handled the case. Schell Brothers was accused of being deceptive.
One blog included the title, “Was there some nefarious plan afoot? Was there an attempt to shut up the locals through political correctness even though the rules were known in advance?”
Dunning, who does not seek publicity, has remained upbeat. The day after the board’s decision she called in to a local radio interview with Schell. “I have been called to serve,” she said. “I will continue to serve people and love people. That is my call. That is my ministry. That is my passion.”
Dunning has been involved in starting 17 soup kitchens in Delaware. The purpose of her ministry is to feed those in need, and to offer kindness to those who need and deserve it.
On her Web site, the Rev. Dunning estimates that during the past four years she has served 55,000 meals and has come in contact with more than 5,000 homeless people. She has not announced her specific intentions, but said on the radio show that she would seek counsel from others and “see where everything goes.”
Lawrence Lank, Sussex County planning and zoning director, said that some 20 representatives of the state, county, contractors and utilities met at the site in late July or early August and were told that a single-family dwelling could be built on the six-acre parcel.
A second attached home and a guesthouse could also be built, Lank said. The guesthouse was not constructed. Lank said that the owners could apply for and receive a home occupation permit if they met the county definition of home occupation.
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Lank said he wrote a letter to Schell Brothers on Aug. 19, saying the county would have no objection to the site being permitted for a home occupation.
Lank said he and other county representatives met with the applicants (the Dunning family) on Sept. 1, just after the site was revealed. They were advised on what had happened while they were away on vacation (Extreme Makeover sends the family on a vacation during the building).
Lank said the Dunnings were told they could cook onsite and could serve off-premises, but that they could not serve on the site. He said Schell Brothers was advised that it could apply for a special use exception. The six-acre site is zoned Agricultural-Residential. That zoning typically allows agricultural and single-family homes to be built.
County regulations permitted the house that was built as well as the second house for Dunning’s son, Brooks Dunning. Because decking connected it to the main house, the second house is permitted by county code.
County code also allowed the building of the commercial kitchen constructed at the site, Lank said. A home occupation designation did not, however, allow for patrons to be served at the site.
On Nov. 8, Schell told radio host Dan Gaffney of WGDM that everything built at the Jusst Sooup Ranch met county code regulations and was built legally. “There was no attempt by Schell Brothers to deceive anyone,” Schell said. “Everything was on the up and up.”
Schell also said the controversy didn’t negate the good that the build had accomplished. The purpose of the build was to create a large commercial kitchen for Dale Dunning and her ministry. “The primary purpose was to give her a commercially approved kitchen,” Schell added.
A second purpose was to give back to the Dunnings for all they’d done for the community, Schell told Gaffney. “Dale Dunning is one of those rare people who truly puts the needs of others before her own,” Schell said.
Schell said Dunning technically wasn’t allowed to have prepared soup in her former home’s kitchen. He added that even if she were allowed to serve soup in her new home, she would still have had to take some of the soup to shelters or kitchens elsewhere because transportation is a problem for many residents.
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The soup kitchen building contains the kitchen, a dining area, bathrooms and a storage area for clothing to be donated to those in need. A clothing drive during the build collected hundreds of items.
The kitchen is a far cry from Dunning’s crowded four-burner stove and former Lewes home. A gleaming 10-burner stove means she can now prepare more soup. There’s a walk-in freezer and rows of ladles and aprons hung neatly upon spoons bent into hooks by Lewes blacksmith John Ellsworth.
Large kettles are specially designed to tilt so the heavy pots don’t have to be carried by Dunning or her family members. Only the serving area has prompted controversy.
The day after the building was revealed on the show, community members came forward with gifts for the Dunning family and the ministry. Dunning’s husband, Ken, received a trailer and other equipment to help him with his lawn maintenance business. A local dentist offered free dental services to some of the Jusst Sooup patrons. Pest control and trash service were donated for the site. Smithfield donated 30,000 pounds of pork to be used by Jusst Sooup.
A $300,000 endowment fund was established for the Jusst Sooup Ranch and ministry—$100,000 of that was won by two “Extreme Home Makeover” designers competing on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
The Dunnings applied to the Sussex County Board of Adjustment for a special use exception, hoping to serve food at lunchtime on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, as well as on special occasions and holidays.
Schell said in his radio interview that the Dunning family applied for the exception because of an ice cream cooler in the soup kitchen. The cooler had a glass lid that would normally only be used if people were going to be served at the site, according to county officials.
Schell said that because of that donated appliance, the family was told that it could not receive a permanent certificate of occupancy unless the appliance was removed or the special use exception was granted.
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Several people spoke in support of the application at the Oct. 3 hearing. Brooks Freeman, who helped build the ranch and provide security, likened Dunning to Mother Teresa.
But several locals worried a soup kitchen would attract sexual predators, former prisoners, the mentally ill and criminals. Many said it would be better located elsewhere, perhaps closer to police or city services.
“What type of people are they feeding?” asked John Doerfler. “It’s too much of a gamble. The next thing you know, we’re going to have them sleeping in the woods.”
Others at the meeting said approvals were rushed in order to satisfy the needs of a television show. “For the glamour of TV, the risk in Cool Spring has increased 100 percent,” said Mark Leishear. “The show is gone. The cameras are gone. The buildings are built. Now, it’s time to sensibly govern the land-use permissions for this area.”
Leishear told the board that a study of Delaware homeless people showed that 31 percent had abused substances, 34 percent had no income, and 38 percent had been jailed at one time. “I’m not willing to spin the roulette wheel,” said his wife, Kelly Leishear.
Seven people opposed Dale Dunning’s application and 13 supported it.
According to resident Brenda Hudson, who lives next to the property, bad things can happen anywhere. She’s not concerned. It upset her that many of those in opposition said they “support the Dunnings, but not in my backyard. If not in your backyard, then whose?” she says.
The Board of Adjustment voted 5-0 not to allow the special use exception. Members said the application would have been better suited as a zoning change or a conditional use application.
Members added that the new home did not meet the definition of a home occupation because the definition that came closest was that of a restaurant, which is not permitted under the code. “It’s more akin to a restaurant than to anything else under a home occupation,” said Ronald McCabe, then a board member.
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The board stated that the opposition had done a good job of stating its case and the decision was difficult to make. Board member Jeff Hudson announced that it was “unfortunate that we are in a position where we have to make a decision based on the ordinance.” Added chairman Dale Callaway, “No one is questioning the good works of the soup ministry.”
“Shame on you for what you’ve done,” said one audience member.
The Dunnings left quietly and quickly in the Jusst Sooup van.
The Board of Adjustment decision can be appealed to Delaware Superior Court. Jusst Sooup can also request a conditional use or a zoning change to allow people to be served in the soup kitchen. But that would require a public hearing, and much of the same opposition is expected.
There was no word at press time about what Jusst Sooup will do next. On Dec. 23, 2011, Dunning said in an email that there was “nothing new yet.”
It’s not the Dunnings’ first hurdle. Dale Dunning says there have been times when she didn’t know how the ministry would continue, no matter how hard they worked.
“There have been times when I thought this ministry was over,” she says. “I used to get very sad. Now, I just do all that I can do and give it all I can. When I get to my limit, I know others can help.”