County defines, regulates group homes in neighborhoods

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The New Hanover County Historic Courthouse is featured prominently in 'Sleepy Hollow,' much as the next-door Thalian Hall was in 'Matlock' two decades ago. Photos by Jonathan Spiers.
The New Hanover County Historic Courthouse, where the Board of Commissioners meet. File photo.

A text amendment to zoning laws creating a definition and new use for group homes was approved by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Monday night in response to an issue regarding the compliance of a particular facility with county regulations.

Group homes, now defined as places of residence where up to six unrelated people with disabilities live together as a self-supporting and self-sufficient household unit, are now allowed in residential zones. Previous county law did not address such homes, but had regulations regarding residential care facilities, which required that a supervisor be present on site.

The issue was brought up a year ago when the county received a complaint that a home at 110 Landsdowne Road was non-compliant with the county’s zoning regulations. The residence was rented by Oxford House, a non-profit group that sponsors self-sufficient group homes for recovering addicts. Eight unrelated women live in the house with no supervisor or structured program, as is typical of Oxford Homes.

Though the home was operating against county laws, the Federal Fair Housing Act prevents local governments from discriminating against people with disabilities, which by their definition includes recovering drug and alcohol addicts. The county gave Oxford House three options: leave the property, bring it into compliance, or petition for a text amending to the zoning laws. The organization opted for the latter.

Commissioners previously discussed the matter during a public hearing in August. At that meeting, the board initially voted then later tabled the issue after asking county staff to consult with their City of Wilmington counterparts (there are currently three Oxford Homes operating within city limits.)

After hearing from representatives from the county’s planning and zoning commission, which recommended the amendment that was eventually adopted, and Oxford House, which this time requested that an exemption be made specifically for them, Commissioner Skip Watkins said adopting a text amendment to encompass the current issue as well as future group homes would address the problem on a greater level than just one facility.

“I think we need to focus on this as a whole,” Watkins said. “I don’t want to ignore the need.”

Commissioner Woody White agreed, saying, “We need to talk about this in total here.”

Petitioners on behalf of Oxford House, which originally asked for an amendment that would allow for up to eight unrelated persons to live together in one residence, will now have to file a special exemption for their facility. Future group home operators who wish to deviate from the county’s set regulations for any reason will also have to file for special exemptions, which will be presented to the Planning Board and evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Watkins made a motion to adopt the staff’s recommendation, with amendments by Commissioner Rob Zapple and newly elected Chairwoman Beth Dawson to require that operators apply annually for recertification or exemption and that they must be at least 2000 feet from the next similar facility, respectively. The motion was seconded by Zapple and unanimously approved.