SAFETY HARBOR — In a quiet neighborhood loop, a house once unwanted by this small city could spur changes in local laws across Pinellas County.
The home's six residents, men with mental disabilities, were barred from moving in last year. Under city and state laws, such group homes must not be within 1,000 feet of each other, and another one was too close by. The homeowner's attempt to seek an exemption under local law was shot down.
So she fought — until last month, when the city agreed to let the group home open and even paid a $400,000 settlement.
Still, the fight goes on. It's beyond this one house now. The federal government has nudged the city of Safety Harbor to repeal sections of its land development code relating to the location of group homes, and other cities have taken notice.
In a letter to the city, the U.S. Department of Justice criticized the city's law requiring 1,000 feet between group homes.
"These sections impose restrictions on family care homes only," the letter said. "No similar burdens are imposed on housing for people without disabilities."
Enter the federal Fair Housing Act.
"I understand the residents may not appreciate this or like this, but what the federal government is saying is that the home should not be treated any differently from any other family of six or six separate individuals," city attorney Alan Zimmet said.
A state law establishes the 1,000-foot rule. In Pinellas County, most local governments reiterate that restriction. But some — including Safety Harbor — allow people to apply for exemptions.
At least one local government has already decided to propose changes to its code. Several, including Pinellas County and Pinellas Park, are reviewing their policies. Others, including Clearwater, believe theirs won't present problems.
None reported previous conflicts arising from their ordinances.
In Dunedin, fair housing language is written directly into the code. While the code is meant to provide "reasonable standards" for group homes and "protect the character" of communities, it also includes a section that says any of the rules can be waived to follow the Fair Housing Act's regulations.
Years ago, the city attorney "taught us to be very inclusive of folks with disabilities," said Dunedin planning and development director Greg Rice.
In Tarpon Springs, Safety Harbor's cautionary tale prompted a draft of revisions. "We will be doing some changes," said City Manager Mark LeCouris. Tarpon city commissioners will likely discuss them in November.
In Largo, community development director Carol Stricklin reported that local code appears to be in line with Florida statutes. But she added, "We've been asked to evaluate it for compliance with the federal issues."
It's all causing a little bit of confusion. The legal hierarchy means local and state laws always bow to federal law. But how can cities' codes potentially violate federal law when they mirror state law?
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Decades ago, Florida developed laws to foster the inclusion of people with disabilities into communities. The laws also covered group homes for people served by the Department of Elderly Affairs, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Family Services.
The law meant small group homes would be treated like any other family of six. A group home would need a license from its sponsoring agency, but it didn't have to jump through any governmental hoops to move into communities as long as the distance requirement was met.
Group homes wouldn't be cornered into bad neighborhoods, said Debra Dowds, executive director of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council. Like everyone else, they were free to choose where to call "home."
"The distance was put in there so that it would be more acceptable to have group homes in communities that they would've never gotten approval to be placed in before," Dowds said. "The 1,000-foot rule in our mind has been a good thing."
On the federal level, the Fair Housing Act protects discriminatory housing practices based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap. People with disabilities are afforded additional protections: The act calls for policies to make reasonable accommodations for them.
Several years ago, Sarasota County became entangled in a similar case. The county tried to block a company from operating six group homes for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts on one street, in part by citing its 1,000-foot rule.
The Department of Justice responded by citing the Fair Housing Act, which includes alcohol and substance abuse as disabilities.
Instead of settling and revising its code as Safety Harbor is doing, Sarasota County defended its zoning decision.
It faced a pair of federal lawsuits filed by the group home provider and the Department of Justice. After more than a year, the county settled the two for $760,000. By that time, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported, the county had racked up nearly $3 million in legal expenses.
In the settlement, the Department of Justice also demanded that the county adopt policies to prevent future discrimination.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]