Supporters say it’s about safety, opponents call it discriminatory. Group home ordinance passes final reading.

A Vienna group home ordinance passes its final reading.
Published: Jun. 25, 2022 at 1:43 AM EDT
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VIENNA, W.Va. (WTAP) - Vienna’s group residential homes ordinance is officially in the books. It passed its second city council reading Thursday night five to two.

WTAP talked to city council members on both sides of the issue.

Supporters say it’s a step towards safer neighborhoods and opponents call it discriminatory.

City council member Kim Williams voted against the measure.

“In my opinion, it’s very discriminatory because it singles out people with disabilities that have to follow the ordinance and people without disabilities do not,” she said.

City Council member Tom Azinger voted for the measure.

“I was glad it passed. You know, I have nothing against group homes. In fact, I have people near and dear to me who have been involved in them but I think there ought to be some limits on them,” he said.

The ordinance will put regulations on group residential homes like requiring them to register with the city, follow rules like limiting the number of residents, being at least 1,500 feet away from other group homes, among other guidelines.

Both Williams and Azinger said the intent of the law is to target group homes for people with substance use disorders.

Williams said, “There was some discussion last night about ‘well you know we probably wouldn’t apply it to this person or that person because they’re really trying to target people who suffer from substance use disorder.’”

However, the language used in the ordinance is vague, never specifying that the disability it’s talking about is substance-use disorder.

Williams said, “The ordinance states and it follows the state law which basically - the language is the same - right? Meaning ‘a building owned or leased by persons with disabilities for the purpose of establishing a personal residence.’ That’s the language.”

It makes Williams worry it could apply to veterans with PTSD among other cases. Azinger, however, doesn’t think that’s likely. Still he couldn’t give a 100 percent answer.

Williams is also concerned about people using the ordinance to target people.

She said, “For example, you were a person with a disability and maybe you had a couple other people living in your home with a disability and your neighbors didn’t like you. They can pick up the phone and call the city of Vienna and say ‘Hey are my neighbors registered? You know, they have a disability. Are they registered?’”

For Azinger, the number one concern is safety. He said he knows of a couple instances of a local group home running into issues - citing one incident in which he said needles were found.

“We don’t need to expose our kids to that. We ought to try to limit so that the kids won’t be picking up a needle or something like that,” Azinger said.

Williams pushed back on the notion that the regulations will impact neighborhood safety, pointing to the Oxford House in Vienna.

She said, “These are men, living here, supporting each other in sobriety. They go to work every day. Okay? They keep the grass mowed, they’re helpful to their neighbors. I have a friend who’s down in that neighborhood. They’ll mow her grass or help the neighbors with their garden…,”

Williams said people who use at group homes are kicked out and that the police force is capable of handling issues.

Azinger responded to Williams’ argument that they get kicked out with, “They kick them out but, before they kick them out, they’re using drugs there.”

Azinger fears the consequences that these homes could present to residential neighborhoods if members relapse. He is not against group homes, however he believes they need to be regulated.

Chris Mancuso is the other city council member who voted against the measure. He also believes the ruling is discriminatory. Mancuso told WTAP that, while the ruling doesn’t explicitly exclude group homes from our communities, it makes it hard for them to exist.

Azinger, however, does not view the ruling as discriminatory and is confident that it’s legally sound.

“Our attorney cited numerous other locations in the United States where people have a similar law and it was not struck down,” he said.

Williams said the form people will have to fill out to register with the city has not been presented to council.

“That form will not come back to council for any approval because the approval’s already been given and, you know, council did not do their due diligence by adopting this ordinance without even knowing what was - what was on the form. What questions are we asking people with disabilities?” she said.

Williams added that, even if the ordinance was specific and deliberate in language making it clear that it’s aimed at group homes for people with substance use disorder, she still would consider it discriminatory.

Azinger said, “It doesn’t discriminate. It just tries to regulate something that could be potentially hazardous.”

When asked how the measure will be enforced, Azinger said that people will get fined if they don’t get a business license.

For more details on what both sides have said about the ordinance, see our previous coverage of the issue here.

The group home ordinance was not the only ordinance that passed its final reading Thursday night. For more information on the substance abuse treatment facility ordinance, which passed unanimously, click here.

If you want to watch the city council meeting for yourself, Vienna city council posts recordings of its meetings on YouTube.

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