Community-hearing process ended for licensed group homes

August 14, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

State-licensed group homes for people with disabilities no longer need to be put through community hearings or any other kind of review process.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., after studying a recent decision by a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore, agrees that holding hearings and notifying neighbors violates the federal government's Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.

As long as the homes meet state regulations on safety and other requirements, the state will not require the operators to notify neighbors of their plans to move into an area. But health department officials hope the private companies that run the homes will continue to work with community groups on a voluntary basis.

"The providers understood it was to everyone's benefit to go in and not create acrimony and animosity," said Nelson J. Sabatini, Maryland secretary of health and mental hygiene. "It's just being a good neighbor."

In Maryland, there are 184 group homes, limited to no more than eight beds, in residential neighborhoods. Most have been opened and operated with few objections. But occasionally a community has reacted virulently. In particular, state officials recall a 1989 fight over a group home on Goldentree Lane in East Baltimore County.

Some residents said the home would be disastrous for property values and questioned the use of state funds for a four-bed facility, which housed men displaced by the closing of a larger facility. Health officials said others maintained that it would hurt the resale value of other homes if the operator, MCDS Inc., was allowed to fill in the swimming pool.

The state, which has never failed to grant a license simply because of community complaints, prevailed in the Goldentree Lane case.

Scott M. Uhl, state administrator of community programs for public health services, says that a 1988 Prince George's County study showed that homes in neighborhoods with group homes had higher-than-average appreciation rates.

Still, there was no thought of dropping the state-required hearings until this June, when a Montgomery County case raised the question of whether the process was discriminatory. In that case, Potomac Group Home Corp., which operates four group homes, challenged Montgomery County's more detailed regulations, which included a provision that neighbors and community associations be notified by letter when a site was proposed.

"Neighbors in the communities have typically responded with an outpouring of hostility vented by way of a letter-writing campaign opposing the proposed group home," Senior U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II wrote in his June 14 opinion.

"One neighborhood petition opposing the licensing of Simeon's House expressed the fear that the group home would lead to the 'demise' of their 'refined neighborhood,' " the judge said.

He ruled that "the requirement is equally as offensive as would be a rule that a minority family must give notification and invite comment before moving into a predominantly white neighborhood."

Judge Harvey's decision was based largely on the Fair Housing Act.

After the federal ruling, Mr. Curran reviewed the state regulations at Mr. Sabatini's request and determined they should be ignored until the General Assembly can strike the provisions from the law.

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