Columbus residents express concern over proposed group home

Published 5:23pm Monday, October 22, 2012

Several residents from the Holly Hills subdivision in Columbus attended the Thursday, Oct. 18 council meeting to express concern over a second family care or group home proposed in the subdivision.

Columbus Town Council had scheduled a public hearing concerning a text amendment to add family care or group homes to all three of its residential zoning districts. The text amendment is needed to comply with state and federal law regarding group homes, but the public hearing was cancelled after the planning board tabled the recommendation.

Although there were about 15 residents who expressed concern over the proposed group home, Columbus City Council cannot ban such homes.

State and federal law prohibits local governments from restricting group homes in any residential zoning areas. Synergy in Action Inc. has three group homes and two alternative family living (AFL) homes in Polk County with one of the group homes being located in Holly Hills since 2002. An AFL is where an organization such as Synergy in Action contracts with a family to have an individual with a developmental disability or a mental health diagnosis reside with them.

The residents attending the meeting said they are concerned the group homes will have a negative impact on their property values, will increase speeding in the subdivision and questioned why they are just now finding out about the home.

Joyce Burnette said Holly Hills already has one group home and questioned when the purchaser applied for a town zoning permit because she believes that is required. She also questioned why residents are just now finding out about the home.

“I’m extremely concerned about it,” Burnette said. “I’m afraid they will end up putting more (group homes in Holly Hills). People there (the current group home) don’t cause a problem but I don’t want another.”

Burnette said she is afraid the homes will affect property values and residents were never informed of the first home placed there.

“In my mind it creates a high level of distrust between residents and (town) planners,” she said. “I’d like to know (that) the people we are paying to run the town have our interests at heart.”

Group homes are not required to apply for a zoning permit.

State law (G.S. 168-22) provides language that ensures local zoning ordinances treat family care homes as if they are single-family homes. Such homes cannot be prohibited in a zoning district that allows single-family residences. They also cannot be subject to any special review requirements, such as a special or conditional use permit. State law allows such homes as long as they care for six or fewer disabled persons with the state defining a disabled person as anyone with permanent or temporary physical, emotional or mental disabilities but not those who have been deemed dangerous to themselves or to others.

The Fair Housing Act under federal law is broader in its protections against making a dwelling unavailable to a person because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or a disability.

Synergy in Action Executive Administrator Kathy Romich said the group homes are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with at least one staff member and no participant is ever left alone.

“Our goal is to help people work toward independent living and we have a screening process with an administrative committee which reviews each candidate’s needs, preferences and history,” said Romich.

Synergy in Action is not licensed to serve individuals who are sex offenders or people with violent criminal histories, Romich said.

The group home currently in the Holly Hills subdivision, for example, has four women who spend their days working at Polk Vocational Services (PVS) and all participate in church and community activities, Romich said.

The house Synergy in Action is trying to purchase currently includes applying for a construction loan in order to do improvements, which will increase the value of the house, Romich said. Synergy in Action is a nonprofit organization that is state and federally funded as well as through fundraising and sponsorships.

Holly Hills resident AZ Watson said he’s seen group homes in other communities and people practically had to give their homes away.

“I don’t want my house to be labeled,” Watson said. “It’s going to happen if this passes… I’m strongly against having another group home in that area.”

Columbus council members said they would not consider the text amendment until the planning board makes a recommendation. The planning board meets again on Thursday, Nov. 8 at 4:30 p.m. Council would likely not be able to consider the amendment and hold a public hearing until its Dec. 20 meeting due to time requirements for a notice of a public hearing.

The town is also researching placing a requirement for group homes to be located a certain distance apart from each other for future group homes, but that requirement has been challenged legally in other areas.




Editor's Picks