Group home ordinance moves forward. Some city council members call it discriminatory.

The group residential home ordinance will be up for its second reading at next Thursday's city...
The group residential home ordinance will be up for its second reading at next Thursday's city council meeting.(Laura Bowen)
Published: Jun. 18, 2022 at 1:00 AM EDT
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VIENNA, W.Va. (WTAP) - Vienna City Council unanimously passed an ordinance regulating residential substance use treatment facilities in the area last week. Another ordinance that would regulate group residential homes passed too but with some opposition.

WTAP got both sides of the group residential home ordinance, which passed its first reading four to three.

The ordinance would put regulations on group residential homes such as requiring them to register with the city and follow rules like limiting the number of residents to 12 or one person per square foot of the home’s interior, whichever is less, not including staff.

Vienna Mayor Rapp said, “So one of the things that we ask for was the fact that you have to be certified. You have to have some sort of certification from the government to say yes you’ve met certain restrictions, certain guidelines so that one you continue to provide help for these people and two you give some oversight as far as occupancy limits and things of that nature.”

Other regulations include being at least 1,500 feet away from other group residential homes, requiring homes to report any deaths, serious injuries, or emergency personnel response, among other rules.

Rapp said, “If you’re going to have a recovery home or whatever, there has to be rules. There has to be someone that’s in charge. There has to be someone who oversees this group of people that are strangers, that are thrown into a residential setting with no accountability.”

This ordinance would also ban the home from having a sign or any other external indication that it’s a group residential home that can be seen from the street. Group homes would also need to meet applicable safety codes like fire safety. They must also abide by all off street city parking requirements. It would also ban group homes from housing anyone who would be a direct threat to the safety of others or who would cause significant damage to people’s property.

Rapp, who voted for the measure, said, while it’s important for people to get the help they need, it needs to be done in a safe way.

Not everyone, however, was on board with the measure.

Kim Williams was one of the dissenting votes.

“I was very concerned because the ordinance discriminates against people,” she said.

Williams said the ordinance will discriminate against people with disabilities. She points to how group residential homes are defined in the ordinance.

Word for word it reads ‘For the purpose of this article, ‘group residential home’ shall mean a building owned, leased, or occupied by developmentally disabled or behaviorally disabled persons for purposes of establishing a personal residence.’

Williams said, “You cannot single out people based upon a disability and impose different restrictions or conditions on them that you don’t impose on people who don’t have a disability.”

Williams believes this violates the Fair Housing Act and Americans With Disabilities Act.

She also worries the ordinance will apply to veterans with PTSD, foster families with kids with disabilities, among other situations.

Rapp does not believe the city will be in violation of any laws, saying that officials have spoken with legal representatives.

He said, “..., this is not meant to say that just because you have a disabled child or a disabled spouse or whatever that you have to come underneath these rules. That is not the intent of this ordinance. And so there’s a lot of language out there. This language that we took came right from state code and so we feel pretty confident that we’re not in violation of either of those.”

Since the interview, Rapp checked with zoning officials and clarified that the ordinance would not apply to families.

Rapp acknowledged that it’s possible that issues could arise with different circumstances but points out that the ordinance has an appeals process for special cases.

He also said that the specific parameters of who exactly would have to register and follow guidelines listed under the ordinance has not yet been finalized.

Rapp also explained that the wording of the ordinance doesn’t explicitly say the regulations are for businesses because some entities aren’t officially registered as businesses but act like businesses.

WTAP spoke to the other dissenting city council voters as well.

Councilman Christopher Mancuso voted against the ordinance. He believes that the ordinance is discriminatory and is worried about being sued.

Williams shares the same concern.

She said, “We put ourselves in a bad position to lose a lawsuit and all the implications of that including losing HUD funding…,”

Councilwoman Melissa Elam also voted against the measure. She said the ordinance has no teeth so it feels like an empty gesture. She does not believe the local government has the power to enforce the ordinance due to state and federal law - specifically, the Americans With Disabilities Act as well as the Fair Housing Act.

Elam does not believe the ordinance is meant to be discriminatory. However, she believes that the impact could be discriminatory due to the language used in the ordinance.

She anticipates that amendments will probably be brought forward for the second reading.

The second reading of the ordinance will take place at next Thursday’s city council meeting.

Parkersburg has recently passed similar ordinances and is facing push back from a disability advocacy group, which is promising to sue.

Wendy Tuck was the only dissenting vote in the Parkersburg City Council of members that voted.

The other ordinance that will also be up for its second reading at Vienna city council’s meeting next Thursday is the Residential Substance Use Treatment Facilities ordinance, which passed unanimously for its first reading. Mayor Rapp explained that it will take place of the moratorium if it passes its final reading.

The moratorium is scheduled to end June 30th.

Last year, the city government asked for a year to sort regulations out. Rapp said the hope was for the state legislature to offer guidance but the city didn’t get much help from the state.

The treatment facility ordinance regulates where residential substance use treatment facilities can go.

Under the ordinance, they have to be at least 250 feet away from a residential district, 500 feet away from a public or parochial school, and 100 feet away from any other residential substance use treatment facility.

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