Zoning bias

Our view: Court fight over group homes law would delay needed zoning changes

instead, City Council should show leadership, work toward a compromise

March 18, 2009

Baltimore is going to end up in court if it doesn't comply with federal law that allows therapeutic, licensed group homes for drug addicts, the disabled and elderly to locate in the city without community approval. Members of the City Council have been stalling on legislation to revise the zoning code. But why move ahead with a change in policy that's likely to be unpopular when you can wait for a judge to order the city's compliance and sidestep any responsibility? That may be the easy way out, the politically safe choice, but it's not leadership, it's risky business.

The Department of Justice has found the city's zoning laws to be discriminatory against smaller, residential drug treatment and therapeutic group homes for the disabled and elderly. The city has proposed legislation that would allow state-licensed facilities with eight or fewer people in any neighborhood where single-family homes are permitted. Larger group homes that house nine to 16 people would be permitted in residential zones that allow multifamily dwellings. The bill is modeled after state rules on location of facilities for the mentally ill.

But community leaders want input into where such group homes are located. They say the city has an unfair share of them. So, for the past year, the administration of Mayor Sheila Dixon has revised the bill to address concerns of Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and others. But the council president isn't convinced that there are enough community safeguards or housing inspectors to respond to citizen complaints. And now the legislation is stalled.

Some opponents seem content to force lawyers for the disabled to prove their case in court. But council members and community residents who oppose such facilities shouldn't sit on the sidelines. If they expect their concerns to be addressed, they should be working toward a compromise. Otherwise, they may discover that a federal court decision won't protect their self-interest.

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