Group homes spur debate

Bel Air legislation unfair to recovering addicts, advocates say

Preferential treatment

Proposal's supporters argue that measure meets federal rules

June 14, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Bel Air officials say they have nothing against group homes for drug addicts and alcoholics -- they just want to treat them the same as any other multifamily home.

But lawyers for a company that runs five such group homes in Bel Air say they are different, and insist the difference gives them protection under federal housing law.

Those clashing interpretations are at the center of a dispute that erupted last week over group homes in the Harford County town, which is debating legislation that would restrict group homes to areas zoned for high density.

Town officials say the proliferation of group homes threatens the stability of single-family neighborhoods. They believe their legislation would pass legal muster, despite federal rulings striking down similar laws elsewhere in the country.

"It has nothing to do with not liking [those in recovery] or not wanting them as neighbors," said Elissa Levan, an attorney representing the town. "It has to do with treating them like everyone else."

But Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, who represents Maryland Recovery Partners Inc., said the bill has no restriction against the developmentally disabled or mentally ill -- restrictions that clearly would violate federal law.

She said that the Federal Fair Housing Act treats group homes for drug addicts and alcoholics the same as group homes for those with other disabilities.

"These people who are in recovery should not be denied the ability to live in residential areas," Krevor-Weisbaum said. "They should have the right to live wherever they please."

The bill has stirred strong feelings in the close-knit community, with residents packing the town commissioners' meeting June 7.

It also has resulted in protests that it discriminates against those in recovery.

The legislation would prohibit group homes, boarding houses and community shelters in areas zoned for low- and medium-density residential development. It would allow them in areas zoned for higher density only with a special exception.

It 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," unless those living in the house fell under state regulations covering group homes for the disabled or mentally ill.

Existing homes exempt

While the five group homes run in Bel Air by Maryland Recovery would be exempt under the legislation, Krevor-Weisbaum said the bill would effectively discriminate against any new homes by not affording them the same protection provided facilities for the disabled.

Michael Allen, senior staff attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., said that under the federal housing law, those in recovery are afforded the same rights as the disabled.

Allen noted a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which Edmonds, Wash., officials argued that group homes in some residential areas violate single-family zoning laws.

In that 6-3 decision, which involved a home operated by the nationally known Oxford House, the court said that cities could not exclude group homes from residential areas based on rules "designed to preserve the family character of a neighborhood."

"Even a neutral rule which treats all unrelated people the same would have to have some flexibility, unless the city or town could show some overwhelming reason as to why it could not be flexible," Allen said.

No preferential treatment

Levan, however, defended Bel Air's bill, saying that any private home with four or more nonrelated residents would be subject to the same regulations under the proposed ordinance.

"The Fair Housing Act protects individuals from discrimination, but it does not entitle individuals to preferential treatment," Levan said. "The city is not saying they can't live in single-family zones, they are saying they have to do it in groups of three or less, like everyone else."

Bel Air town commissioners are scheduled to discuss the legislation June 21.

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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