Following discrimination complaint, Safety Harbor may settle with group home

SAFETY HARBOR — Last year, the City Commission said no.

The proposed group home for mentally disabled young men was too close to another assisted living facility, in violation of state rules. It needed the city's permission to move into the small Harbor Woods Village subdivision, but commissioners unanimously refused to grant a local exception.

A proposed settlement up for consideration by commissioners next week could reverse that decision.

If approved, the settlement offer would allow the group home to operate at 59 Harbor Woods Circle. The city's insurance company also would pay $400,000 to the group home in exchange for a promise not to bring legal action against the city.

"It is recommended that the City Commission approve this settlement agreement in order to avoid the time, expense, inconvenience and risk of litigation," reads a staff summary on the agenda item.

It appears that no lawsuits have been brought against the city yet. However, the settlement discussion comes after the group home's owner, Bonnie Jo Hill, filed a federal housing discrimination complaint in September 2011.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said she could not comment on open cases.

The draft of the settlement denies any wrongdoing by the city. It also calls for two city staffers to take a "Fair Housing 101" course for training on the requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

"The city's going to do what's adequate and appropriate and necessary," Mayor Andy Steingold said, declining to comment further.

Jim Yacavone, the attorney appointed to represent Safety Harbor by the city's insurance company, did not want to speak about the settlement offer before Wednesday's City Commission meeting.

The commission held two closed-door sessions to discuss the issue this summer. Meetings to discuss legal strategy are legal under Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine law.

In April 2011, Hill sought conditional use approval from the city to open the group home for up to six men ages 17 to 24. After renovating the house, she discovered that the assisted living facility Melody Place sat less than 300 feet away. State law says that residential care facilities cannot operate within 1,000 feet of each other unless the local government approves. The new group home never opened.

Neighbors protested Hill's group home during a five-hour hearing. Represented by an attorney, they complained that having two group homes in the community would tank their property values. They also feared it would threaten the safety of their children and set a precedent for clusters of facilities.

"Unfortunately, I don't think there's been a change in neighbor sentiment," Hill's attorney, Richard Heiden, said recently. "But there's a better understanding of the city regarding its legal obligations."

The settlement is among several agenda items for Wednesday's meeting. Commissioners will hold a second public hearing on the budget and tax millage rate. They also plan to discuss suggested guidelines for the city's stormwater responsibilities.

The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, 750 Main St.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Following discrimination complaint, Safety Harbor may settle with group home 09/14/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 14, 2012 6:43pm]

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