Facility for aged loses bid to grow Ruling in Howard case could boost resistance by neighbors of homes

September 04, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A federal court decision in a Howard County case is expected to help community groups opposing the rapid growth of assisted-living homes for the elderly.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower court decision, said Howard County did not violate the federal Fair Housing Act when its zoning ordinances were used to stop the expansion of a facility for the elderly in Columbia.

"It's going to give us more fuel for our fire," Baltimore County Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Democrat who has been trying to regulate similar homes there, said yesterday of the decision.

Moxley said four recent disputes have erupted over the expansion or building of these facilities in his Catonsville-area district.

"I am not looking to do away with homes but I don't want to change the character of the neighborhoods," he said.

The facilities allow people who do not need the extensive medical and institutional care of a nursing home to live in supervised conditions in residential communities.

In the Howard County case, Bryant Woods Inn Inc., owner of a for-profit home for eight patients with Alzheimer's disease and other disabilities, sought permission to expand.

Zoning authorities, citing inadequate parking and traffic congestion, denied the request in 1994.

Richard Colandrea, who with his mother, Carmen Colandrea, owns Bryant Woods Inn, filed suit, claiming that the county refused to aid handicapped people as required by federal law, appealing to the Circuit Court after the District Court upheld the Howard County decision last year.

In its Aug. 25 opinion, the Circuit Court said that though federal law requires that "reasonable accommodations" -- or possible exemptions from laws -- be made to ensure senior citizens have housing, no home should be allowed to expand in violation of zoning laws if such space is available in other facilities.

"In enacting the Fair Housing Act, Congress clearly did not contemplate abandoning the deference that courts have traditionally shown to such local zoning codes," the decision reads.

Baltimore County has been one of the main battlegrounds of this fight as numerous neighborhood associations have opposed assisted-living homes, decrying them as businesses that change the character of residential areas.

Exactly how far the decision reaches -- how it will apply to areas where housing for the elderly is scarce, for instance -- is not clear.

Yesterday, Sue F. Ward, director of the Maryland Office on Aging, said she did not know what effect the ruling would have on assisted-living facilities in the state.

But she said she hoped it would not become a stumbling block in the state's push for more such facilities, which she said are needed to allow those who do not need the extensive care of a nursing home to remain in communities.

"As the [elderly] population explodes, we are going to be increasing pressure to have care options in the communities," Ward said. "We certainly want to see this sort of service expanded."

Ward said the number of Maryland residents older than 85 will almost double in the next 23 years, from 57,000 to a projected 101,000 residents in 2020.

Beth Pepper, the attorney for Bryant Woods Inn Inc. who filed suit against Howard County, decried the ruling as a blow against smaller facilities for the elderly that are trying to expand.

Pepper said the ruling "significantly curtails the rights of people with disabilities" because it appears to take away their power of choice.

"The court is essentially saying in this case that it is OK to send these individuals to another group home," she said.

The decision essentially requires that a facility for the aged prove that it needs to expand -- that it cannot be granted unquestioned exceptions because of the population it handles.

Bryant Woods Inn's request spurred opposition from neighbors on Waterfowl Terrace in Columbia's Wilde Lake village. At a public hearing in February 1994, officials of the county Department on Aging and the county Alzheimer's association testified for the expansion, while neighbors and Department of Planning and Zoning officials testified against it, the opinion said.

Colandrea said yesterday that the decision runs counter to the vision of Columbia's planners, who sought an area where people of all races -- and ages -- could live together.

"I think it flies in the face of the city developer's original intent," Colandrea said.

A neighbor of the home and president of the Bryant Woods Neighborhood Association, Philip Kirsch, said residents did not object to the eight-bed facility. At issue, Kirsch said, was how far the Colandreas planned to expand.

"To us, this is about limits," Kirsch said.

Pepper would not say whether she planned to appeal the decision. She said only that she was looking at "our options."

Those options include asking the court to rehear the case with all DTC the judges present, and appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

! Pub Date: 9/04/97

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