New Hanover County Commissioners decided Monday night to table a request to amend zoning laws in order to permit a group recovery home in a residential neighborhood.
Before that, the commission had listened to testimony for nearly two hours in considering the request from Oxford House. The nonprofit runs group recovery homes and currently operates one in the county, which houses eight residents. A complaint about the house brought the nonprofit and its request before the commission.
At the end of that hearing the commission decided to follow the recommendation of the county’s Planning Board, which would allow up to six unrelated people to occupy a single-family residence as part of a group home. Commission Chairman Jonathan Barfield Jr. and Commissioner Beth Dawson dissented.
About a half hour later, commissioners changed their mind. Led by Commissioner Woody White, they voted unanimously to reconsider their earlier vote. After another 45 minutes of discussion, commissioners voted 3-2 to table the Oxford House request.
White explained he wanted the commissioners and planning department to consider how the City of Wilmington sets limits for group homes located there. Commissioner Rob Zapple wondered whether the neighborhood had been made aware of the public hearing, since no one had signed up to comment that night.
“The public in that neighborhood was not opposed to this because if they were opposed they would have been here,” said Barfield.
According to Mark Boyer, chief communication officer for New Hanover County, the issue is tabled until October so “planning and legal staffs can get with their city counterparts and talk about how the city handled group homes.”
The City of Wilmington currently allows three Oxford Homes, with groups of six, seven, and eight people to reside in single-family homes.
Reached Tuesday, White said, “The reason I asked for this to be reconsidered is because I’m wondering if there is any value in us going back to the City of Wilmington – primarily for uniformity, but also because I don’t want to swing at a pitch here just because they pitched the ball.”
Greg Heafner presented on behalf of the Oxford House Monday night during the issue’s first public hearing, and asked that county commissioners amend language in current zoning laws to include the residence on Landsdowne Road. Heafner was not a part of the second discussion of the issue after the initial passage of the amendment, and unaware of the discussion until later on in the evening.
According to Heafner, there was no representative from Oxford House in the meeting chambers during the second discussion of the issue.
If the amendment were to continue as proposed in its first passage, the eight women currently living at 110 Landsdowne Road — the only Oxford House located in the county’s jurisdiction — would still occupy the single family home illegally.
After a citizen complaint in December 2014, county zoning staff was made aware of a nonconforming situation of eight unrelated disabled persons living together in a single family residence. The county gave the residents three options: Vacate the residence, bring the home into compliance, or petition for an amendment to the zoning ordinance to permit the use.
Representatives of Oxford House decided to petition for an amendment, which was originally denied by the New Hanover County Planning Board in April.
While the recovery home was not in accordance with county law, the Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA) protects the the house’s right to exist because it includes a provision where housing authorities — on any level of government — cannot discriminate against those who are handicapped. According to the FFHA, handicapped individuals include recovering drug addicts and alcoholics who are not currently using illegal drugs.
In June, the Planning Board in a 5 to 1 vote recommended to County Commissioners the current amendment classifying a group home of up to six unrelated individuals. According to the Planning Board this new definition of a group home will allow for the same number of unrelated individuals in a single family household as a residential care home, therefore protecting themselves from the FFHA. According to Heafner, this still doesn’t address the problem.
“We’re not seeking a law to have all these people come in and do whatever they want. We’re seeking for this one house for this one group of people to stay where they already are,” said Heafner. “What do these eight women need? There’s no burden on the county to allow them stay there.”
The Oxford House is a self-run, self-supported recovery home concept that serves as the model for residents to receive support in their recovery from alcoholism while maintaining an independent life. All decisions relating to house operations are made democratically, including managing the house’s financing.
If a resident relapses they are forced out of the house. Residents of an Oxford House live there by choice, with an average stay of about 13 months. There is no staff living in the house or overseeing the house and no treatment or professional services are provided on the premises.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story did not reflect the commission’s reconsideration of their first vote.
James Mieczkowski is a news reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @mieczkowskiPCD