Plan to ease way for group homes retracted

Baltimore waiting for state to address neighborhoods' concerns

December 18, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore planning officials have withdrawn a City Council proposal that would have made it easier for group homes, including those for recovering addicts, to open in residential areas.

Officials of Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, retreating from statements made this year, said the city will abandon the proposal until the state addresses neighborhood concerns.

The measure, virtually identical to a proposal that died last year in the council, would have allowed certain group homes offering rehabilitative or medical assistance - including for drug and alcohol abuse - to open in residential areas.

The withdrawal of the proposal was seen by some as a victory for neighborhood leaders, who have argued they have little voice in decisions about which homes settle in their community and no recourse if residents of those homes cause trouble.

Others said the decision to pull the bill is irrelevant because the city grants zoning permits to homes with eight or fewer residents - in violation of its own zoning rules - because it fears the possibility of a civil rights lawsuit.

"There are plenty of homes where there are no problems at all," said Cindy Leahy, executive director of the Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville. "But there are issues from time to time, and it's difficult for community leaders to figure out where to go to get a problem remedied."

Under the city's current zoning rules, group homes that house four or fewer unrelated people can move into residential areas. To occupy a house with more than four, approval from the city is required.

The stalled proposal would have increased to eight the number of unrelated residents allowed to move into a home in any residential area, and homes with nine to 16 residents would have been able to open in areas zoned for multifamily housing.

Questions

In a memo sent this month, the director of the city's planning department, Otis Rolley III, asked that the measure be pulled from the City Council's agenda because of questions raised by residents and elected officials.

"There is a great deal of concern about the state licensing and monitoring process, and certified or licensed facilities in general," Rolley wrote. "I believe that there is still a lot of work needed for the proposed legislation."

At a community meeting held to discuss the issue last week, residents of Northeast Baltimore neighborhood groups expressed a variety of concerns, including the difficulty homeowners have in determining whether a home is licensed and who is responsible for its oversight.

They are also worried about so-called supportive homes that are not licensed because they provide no treatment. Homes that do not provide treatment are permitted in residential areas.

In May, O'Malley said he supported the bill because "we do what's right." At the time, he said he had to "manage the politics" and the political risk that came with supporting a proposal unpopular with residents and members of the council.

This week, officials said that the administration supports the bill but that more time is needed to deal with resident concerns - which they said are aimed mainly at the state. O'Malley's office dismissed questions about whether the decision to withdraw the measure was political.

"We are pulling the legislation only until such time as we are confident that the state has taken the same corrective actions to handle inspections and citizen complaints as the City of Baltimore currently has in place," spokeswoman Raquel M. Guillory wrote in an e-mail statement.

After the city's Board of Estimates meeting this week, O'Malley said he did not know why the measure had been pulled.

Code questioned

Disability and drug treatment advocates say the proposal is needed to bring the city's 30-year-old zoning code into compliance with the federal Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities acts, which in many cases protect those recovering from a dependency on drugs or alcohol.

"We're concerned that the bill is being pulled," said Ellen M. Weber, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who has supported the zoning changes. "The city has been operating under an unlawful" zoning code.

Cities across the country are dealing with zoning codes that can conflict with federal law. In 2002, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision that Covington, Ky., violated federal law when it refused to grant a zoning permit to a company that wanted to open a group home for recovering addicts.

Rolley, the planning director, said the decision to withdraw the proposal will not make the city more vulnerable to a lawsuit. He also said the city intends to reintroduce the legislation next year.

"We've been partners with the advocacy groups, and I'm pretty confident that we're on the same page," he said. "We want to see this bill passed, and we know why it needs to be passed."

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