Juvenile home's critics buy site

$500,000 house bought by Worthington Valley neighbors to end fight

February 25, 1999|By Dail Willis and Dennis O'Brien | Dail Willis and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Worthington Valley residents fighting a proposed group home for emotionally disturbed juvenile offenders in their neighborhood have bought the half-million dollar property, a move that could end a bitter, three-week battle to keep the facility out.

Bruce Bertell, chief executive officer of Family Advocacy Services Inc., said yesterday that he had been notified by letter that a limited liability corporation called SK Management L.L.C. had purchased the sprawling four-bedroom brick Colonial he had rented for a group home.

"The community bought it," said Bertell, who had planned to move eight emotionally disturbed teen-age boys there by spring. Those plans sparked fear among neighbors, many of whom have young children.

Steven K. Fedder, a resident and lawyer who has helped lead the battle against Family Advocacy, said Bertell's one-year lease might be valid despite the sale, but only until November.

"At this point, the point is that the lease will not be renewed," Fedder said. He said neighbors hope that the sale will discourage the state from licensing the facility and encourage Bertell to look else- where.

Bertell was not sure yesterday how the sale would affect his plans. He said he will continue to seek a license for the house at Gent Road and Knox Avenue, where he plans to treat the teen-agers referred from the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Social Services.

He also is looking at other sites.

"I've looked at a couple of properties," he said. "So far we haven't found anything."

Old Court Road outcry, too

One of the sites he has considered is a 10-acre tract off Old Court Road between Randallstown and Granite, which also provoked an outcry from residents.

They argued that it shouldn't be shifted from the well-to-do Worthington Valley area to their neighborhood.

Officials at Juvenile Justice, which licenses group homes for juvenile offenders, said yesterday that they were unaware of the Worthington Valley sale.

Fedder would not disclose the purchase price of the Gent Road house, but said it was "in the neighborhood" of $495,000.

He declined to say how many neighbors will provide funds for the purchase.

Closing is scheduled for March 20, and Fedder said it could be resold anytime after that.

The home, which occupies a 1.3-acre lot, is owned by Steven R. Goff and his wife, Linda S. Hemingway, who rented it to Bertell in November for $3,200 a month after they were unable to sell it.

The plan for a group home, which became public about three weeks ago, touched off a firestorm of opposition in the Knox Woods subdivision and an adjacent community, Shaneybrook Farms.

In an effort to block the facility, angry residents called state and national representatives, threatened to sue and held a series of community meetings.

Lawsuit still possible

Fedder said yesterday that he and other residents may still file a lawsuit, arguing that federal anti-discrimination laws designed to protect the handicapped do not apply.

He and others have questioned whether the home could be established despite covenants, deed restrictions and local zoning ordinances that prohibit it.

State officials have said that residents of group homes are protected by the federal Fair Housing Act's anti-discriminatory amendments.

"I still think our legal position is strong. I don't think the Fair Housing Act applies, and even if it does, I don't think it prevents local zoning from being enforced," Fedder said.

Family Advocacy, a for-profit company founded by Bertell in 1986, offers therapeutic options for emotionally disturbed teen-agers. Group homes, such as the one proposed for Gent Road, are the most intensive kind of therapy he offers.

Violent teens included

In the Gent Road home, Bertell had planned to house teen-agers, some of whom have committed violent crimes.

Because his group homes are unlocked and ungated, neighbors had expressed fears for their families' safety.

They also were outraged that such a facility could be forced into a rural residential area without their knowledge or consent.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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