Safety Harbor won't allow home to be used as facilitly for mentally disabled men

SAFETY HARBOR — At the end of a marathon meeting Tuesday night that lasted until 1:30 a.m., the City Commission voted to forbid a home in the Harbor Woods Village subdivision from being used as a family care home for six mentally disabled young men.

Bonnie Jo Hill, of Pinellas Park, owns the home at 59 Harbor Woods Circle and has renovated it in hopes of housing a half-dozen men aged 17 to 24. She has operated two other homes in Pinellas County since 2004.

But according to state law, community residential homes aren't allowed to be within 1,000 feet of each other unless the local government approves the home for a conditional use.

Hill said that when she bought the home, she didn't know there was an assisted living facility in the same neighborhood less than 300 feet away — Melody Place, at 35 Harbor Woods Circle.

The commission's unanimous vote came after a five-hour hearing.

Mayor Andy Steingold summed up the commission's reasons, saying it was unfortunate for the applicant because it was just too close to the existing group home, which would affect neighboring property values.

"I've got to balance the right to have a group home and the rights of the neighborhood," the mayor said.

Last week, Safety Harbor's planning and zoning board recommended denying the homeowner's application in a 6-1 vote because of the effect the home would have on adjoining property values.

The case called for a quasi-judicial hearing before the City Commission, where the applicant and an opposing party argue their cases by calling witnesses, cross examining and presenting evidence.

The commission chamber moved from standing-room only to three-quarters full as the hearing crawled on and on, from hour to hour, with cross examinations and emotional banter between lawyers often slowing the pace of the hearing.

Among the witnesses were Hill, her employees, residents of Harbor Woods Village and a land development consultant.

Hill's attorney, Richard Heiden, argued that denying the conditional use would be an act of discrimination and a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

"They don't have a voice," he said of the six young men. "The only voice is the law. And the law is clear."

According to the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal for any person or entity to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services when such accommodations may be necessary to provide those with disabilities equal opportunity to a live in a home.

The opposition, a group of homeowners from the Harbor Woods Village subdivision, maintained that they took issue with the effect the two community residential homes would have on the property values of nearby homes and the precedent that would be set by allowing an exception to the statute.

Deborah Martohue, the attorney who represented the homeowners, said the two homes in such close proximity could create a clustering effect, and could alter the neighborhood and go against the idea that family care homes are supposed to help integrate the inhabitants into average neighborhoods.

"You're clustering them," she said Wednesday. "You're isolating them, in a way."

After the hearing, Heiden said Hill is planning on taking legal action.

"At this point we are examining all lawful avenues of redress for what we consider to be discrimination last night," Heiden said Wednesday.

Hill assured that she was prepared for a long fight.

"It just can't be over," she said.

Safety Harbor won't allow home to be used as facilitly for mentally disabled men 04/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 8:39pm]

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