Group home plan draws concerns

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POST FALLS - Some residents and a real estate agent who markets the Tullamore subdivision in Post Falls are upset that they weren't notified earlier by the city of the type of clients a planned group home for the mentally ill serves.

"Our problem is the process by which this was taken through the system," said Pete Faust, who is marketing the Tullamore project. "No one, from proponents to operators to city staff, ever disclosed that this was a facility to house the seriously mentally ill, drug addicts and possibly released felons, although they had to be aware of it."

The nonprofit Trinity Group Homes operates two duplexes in Coeur d'Alene that house 18 adults with mental illness and provides them with life skills programs. It recently held a groundbreaking ceremony for an eight-room duplex off Poleline in the Tullamore subdivision west of Highway 41.

Construction is expected to start soon and is expected to be completed by March.

Faust said the public hearing notice in April only mentioned a change in density for the site.

But the city says that, under law, it has to comply with the Fair Housing Act and treat the home the same way it treats any single-family home as far as zoning because it houses eight or fewer residents.

"Other than a ceremonial groundbreaking, the proposed building is only plans on paper at this point," Jerry Mason, an attorney who represents the city, wrote in an email. "None of us know who will reside there when it is built. I don't know if the planning staff had any idea about the potential criminal history of any residents, if any of the future residents will have a criminal history. At this point, we know that a group home is proposed."

Mason said governmental agencies need to handle group home requests delicately due to discrimination lawsuits. He referred to a 2010 case in which Boise County was hit with a $4 million verdict for obstructing a home for troubled teens after neighbors opposed it.

"I intend to do my best to prevent that in Post Falls," Mason said. "Idaho law and federal law are structured to make such facilities reasonably available - and to minimize the potential for unlawful discrimination. A group home for eight or fewer is able to locate anywhere a traditional single-family dwelling can locate. Whenever an issue of use arises concerning group homes, the city will be guided by these statutory standards."

Mason said if any laws are violated after the home is built, efforts to ensure compliance will be enforced.

Even though Trinity'sproject was on last week's city council agenda under the Consent Calendar as an administrative matter dealing with the subdivision itself and not as a public hearing, Faust and others were allowed to voice their concerns at the meeting.

"We just think the whole process was deliberately non-transparent and that the city was a part of that," said Faust, who spoke on behalf of the homeowners, and added that the city may be in collusion with a favored developer.

But Mason said that's not the case.

"The city has not concealed or colluded with anyone concerning this matter," Mason wrote.

Homeowner MaryAnn Schevenius said such a group home and starter homes weren't envisioned when she purchased her house in Tullamore, which called for shopping, restaurants and a church. Trinity's plan comes after Tullamore developers faced financial problems.

"It just makes me feel deceived and sad ... but there isn't anything we can do about it," she said.

Schevenius said she fears the value of her home will be decreased even more and is concerned for the safety of the neighborhood.

"The city was less than forthright in disclosing to the owners the type of assisted living being put in," she said. "The fact that there is two schools within blocks and kids walking past that location daily is just not the best situation."

Bob Runkle, Trinity'sexecutive director, said the nonprofit has scheduled an open house for Wednesday in Coeur d'Alene and plans to meet with Tullamore homeowners on Thursday to answer questions and address concerns. Trinity's facilities are semi-independent, meaning staff is not on site 24-7.

"All residents are functioning adults who are independent members of our community," Runkle said. "We operate under a clean and sober policy that requires that no alcohol or drugs be on the premises. Trinity does not tolerate substance abuse of any kind and violation of this rule results in eviction. No guests are allowed in our homes past 10 p.m., which is when quiet hours start."

Trinity has been offering housing since 1979. Runkle said the nonprofit's homes in Coeur d'Alene are near a day care center and an elementary school.

"In the years since I joined Trinity (in 2008), there has been one incident in which the police were called," Runkle said. "The complaint was against a neighboring family which had a radio or stereo playing at a loud level after midnight. Our resident had complained about the noise."

Runkle said all residents' criminal backgrounds are checked prior to being accepted.

"Trinity does not allow residents with convictions of any sexually-related crime or anyone with a conviction of violent crime," Runkle said.

Of its 18 residents in Coeur d'Alene, two are participants in the Kootenai County Mental Health Court and two are under other county supervision programs.

"This represents a small percentage of our residents," Runkle said.

Trinity residents' average stay is 16 months. Three have lived at Trinity for more than 10 years.

Mason said he has seen many group home controversies during his 40-plus years of municipal work as a planner.

"Many people acknowledge the need for such facilities, but they frequently express reservations about having such facilities near them," he wrote. "The city recognizes the residents' concerns and asks them to discuss the matter thoughtfully with representatives of Trinity."

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