Foster care home's foes down, not out

February 20, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Fallston residents engaged in a war against a proposed $6 million foster care complex in their neighborhood are down to their last battle.

The residents have been fighting the Board of Child Care since late 1990, when the agency of the United Methodist Church announced its intention to build a group home for 60 abused and neglected children on 26 acres it owns at Harford and Reckord roads.

But the residents have lost every round.

"We're going back to the beginning, when zoning decisions were made," said Salvatore Glorioso, president of the Fallston Meadows Community Association who lives across Harford Road from the site.

He says he and his neighbors are as determined as ever and intend to argue that the church agency's proposed facility violatesthe county's definition of a "group home," as described in the zoning code.

The code states that a group home is "a building housing more than eight unrelated individuals operated as a single household with common cooking and eating facilities."

The neighbors' lawyer, Harford People's Counsel Robert F. Kahoe, says he's looking at their chances of success realistically.

"I'll represent them as far as I can," he said. "But I can't in goodconscience take them into a battle they can't win."

He said the neighbors have until Friday to appeal the most recent ruling in the case, a letter late last month from Harford County Planning Director William G. Carroll reaffirming his interpretation of the zoning law and saying that the proposed facility should be classified as a group home.

The complex would consist of five cottages, housing 60 boys and girls, and a commercial kitchen, administrative offices, a gymnasium with a swimming pool, a maintenance building and a garage.

It would be home to children from 2 years old to 17 years old who had been referred there by social service agencies throughout the state.

"Our question is: Did the code intend for something that has 10 buildings to be a group home?" Mr. Kahoe said. It is on that questionthat opponents' last hope may hinge.

The Fallston neighbors lost their first battle against the Board of Child Care in January 1992, when a hearing examiner recommended granting the agency a special zoning exception to construct a 41,500-square-foot group home on land zoned for agricultural use.

Residents, with Mr. Kahoe arguing their case, appealed the decision to the County Board of Zoning Appeals, and lost.

They appealed again, to Harford County Circuit Court, and lost again, in December 1992.

Last year, they hired a private Baltimore law firm and appealed to the state Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis.

But in October, they lost that battle, too.

Now, they have returned to the Harford County People's Counsel seeking any glimmer of hope for convincing authorities that they have been wronged.

The people's counsel, a Harford County contractual employee who accepts cases from the public on the recommendation of a seven-member citizens review board, agreed to try to help the neighbors one more time.

Neighbors have argued that the complex would put an unreasonable strain on wells and septic fields in the rural community where there is no public water or sewerage.

They have argued that the influx of students would crowd the Fallston schools and that the increase in traffic would clog the narrow roads dotted with homes.

And they argued that board of appeals broadened the age range of children who could be housed at the complex, which would put more strain on area schools and utilities. Some county officials say the Fallston group doesn't have any arguments left.

In Mr. Carroll's recent letter to Mr. Kahoe, he reaffirmed his 3-year-old interpretation of a group home, noting that to be situated in an agricultural zone it simply requires a minimum parcel size of 3 acres and a maximum density of eight residents per acre.

The board of Child Care's proposed facility would meet those standards.

"The issue was addressed at the time of the original application," Arden Holdredge, the county's chief of current planning, said earlier this month. "The department made a determination then, and we stand by it."

Michael Leaf, the Bel Air lawyer representing the Board of Child Care, agrees. He says his client won fairly and there's nothing more to appeal.

He added that the board has offered to meet with the Fallston Meadows Community Association to introduce the board's new executive director, Tom Curcio, "and see if we can work together." The residents have refused, Mr. Leaf said.

"The zoning case is over and we should all put it behind us," he said.

But Mr. Kahoe is not convinced that the residents are without a case.

"The definition of a group home was only an administrative decision," he said. "It was not decided by the hearing examiner or the board of appeals. It was never a litigated issue."

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