Opponents say Bel Air bill discriminates

Limit on group homes unfair to recovering addicts, they argue

June 08, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

The owner of a company that shelters recovering drug addicts and alcoholics in Harford County says a proposed Bel Air zoning bill would ban group homes such as his and violate federal housing law.

Jack Lyons, president of Maryland Recovery Partners Inc., said the ordinance would violate the Federal Fair Housing Act by permitting some types of group homes but excluding facilities that treat those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.

"The troubling thing is that in Harford County there has been a huge increase in hospital emergency room admissions for drug overdoses," Lyons said. "The statistics are staggering here."

After hearing testimony on the proposed ordinance until late last night, the five Bel Air commissioners voted unanimously to continue the hearing until June 21.

Lawyers who oppose the measure threatened to file suit because, they said, it discriminates against substance abusers.

Residents who support the measure voiced their concern over the growing number of group homes in their neighborhoods.

Commissioner David E. Carey said he does not believe the amendment would prohibit homes for substance abusers.

"My understanding, from reviewing the ordinance and consulting with our counsel, is that what Mr. Lyons does in his current facility would be treated in the same way as a home for those with disabilities," Carey said. "I believe that state law prohibits from treating them any differently."

The bill would prohibit group homes, boarding houses and community shelters in areas zoned for low- and medium-density residential areas.

It would allow them in areas zoned for higher density only with a special exception.

The bill also would define a family, for purposes of zoning, as "up to three adult persons maintaining a common household together with any adult dependents or minor children."

In Baltimore County, zoning laws allow for two unrelated people to reside in a detached house -- more if the owner has a permit to run a boarding house. Baltimore City allows four unrelated people per unit.

Ira C. Cooke, a lawyer representing Lyons, said yesterday that the amendment discriminates against substance abusers, even as Harford and other suburban areas struggle with issues such as the rise in the abuse of heroin.

"The message they appear to be sending is if you want to recover, do it somewhere other than in Bel Air," Cooke said.

Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, who also is representing Lyons, said the five homes Lyons runs in Bel Air would be "grandfathered" in and allowed to continue operating if the bill is passed. But any new homes would be affected by the ordinance.

"We think there is an equal-protection problem here," Krevor-Weisbaum said. "It is an obvious violation of fair housing and equal protection."

By forcing owners to go through the special exception process, Krevor-Weisbaum said, town officials would assure opposition from neighbors.

"The process then invites more opposition with the public hearings," she said.

In 1993, the state attorney general's office -- in response to a U.S. District Court decision -- agreed it would be a violation of federal housing law to require hearings and notify neighbors about a state-licensed group home moving into an area.

Elissa Levan, a private attorney who helped the town draft the ordinance, said at last night's hearing that town officials were within their rights to limit group homes. "The purpose of this legislation is to protect Bel Air single-family homes from encroachment," Levan said.

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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