A sober living house at 439 Delaware Road in the River Crest neighborhood in Frederick sparked controversy the moment it opened its doors in late April.
While some nearby residents still object to the house being there and a ruling from the city that allowed it, city officials largely supported a June 5 memo from the city advising against pursuing zoning enforcement against the property.
Neighbors and the River Crest homeowners association’s board of directors argue that the home violates the exclusively residential zoning of the neighborhood. But Bradley Meadors and Sean Nicholson, co-founders of the addiction recovery service provider that runs the house, say the men who live in the home operate as a family unit and are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act as individuals recovering from substance abuse.
The June 5 memo seems to echo that argument, saying family is defined as “two or more individuals living together as a single house-keeping unit,” according to city code.
That definition drew the ire of neighbors, who argued that it is far too broad.
“According to you, the Hampton Inn could be a family,” said one man who refused to provide his name when approached by a reporter.
Many residents were already upset with what they saw as a lack of transparency with the opening of the home before a May meeting of Neighborhood Advisory Council 7, the city-organized group that addresses crime and other problems in the neighborhood. Tensions only increased when the meeting was rescheduled and neither Meadors nor Nicholson attended.
On Tuesday, more than two months after the last NAC meeting, Meadors and Nicholson addressed the NAC for the first time, saying they want to be as forthcoming as possible with neighbors.
“Open and transparent is not moving into a neighborhood, listing it as their primary dwelling ... and immediately converting it into something else, whether you want to call it a rooming house [or what],” said Joseph Spelman, a member of the River Crest HOA’s board.
Spelman and others also took exception to the city’s memo, which was circulated and endorsed previously by Mayor Michael O’Connor. Spelman called the city’s ruling “an absolute disgrace,” and accused city officials of turning their backs on the neighbors upset by what they saw as a cut-and-dried zoning violation.
“Reasonable accommodation [for people recovering from substance abuse] is not necessarily unlimited,” Spelman said. “How about some reasonable accommodation for the homeowners? Maybe [Nicholson is] doing good work, but don’t we count, too?”
The mayor, who was present at the meeting along with four of the five members of the city’s Board of Aldermen, said the city’s memo was based on extensive analysis that was conducted in direct response to the concerns of residents and to Spelman’s complaints, specifically.
“We have looked at a situation and we have come to a conclusion, and the conclusion that we have come to is based on our zoning code, the expertise of our zoning and our planning folks, our lawyers. ... It just doesn’t match your expectations, and for that I apologize,” O’Connor said.
The aldermen largely agreed.
Rather than holding out for city action, they encouraged residents to rely on the homeowners association, which has also filed several complaints against the property for its alleged violations of the contract signed and agreed to by all residents in the community.
Alderwomen Donna Kuzemchak and Kelly Russell voiced strong opinions in the case. While Kuzemchak refused to endorse a more restrictive definition for a family unit in the city’s code, Russell praised the service that Nicholson and Meadors provided to the community, saying she would welcome neighbors like the young men living at 439 Delaware as neighbors in her own community.
Alderman Derek Shackelford reiterated the suggestion that residents pursue further action through the HOA, saying he respects the expertise of legal and planning staff, especially when it comes to a potential violation of federal fair housing law.
“If we violate that law and we get sued, it’s going to cost taxpayers,” Shackelford said. “As an elected city official? I’m not a lawyer. That’s why [City Attorney Saundra Nickols] was hired … I can’t in good conscience go against that [advice].”
Meanwhile, Alderman Roger Wilson said he was open to the idea of addressing residents’ concerns through legislation. Wilson said he supports what Nicholson and Meadors were trying to accomplish, but he was also concerned about how little the residents knew about the home and its intended use before it opened.
While many residents opposed the sober living home, not all of them did.
Missy Connor, one of NAC group’s coordinators, supports the sober living home and wants to bridge the gap between them and her fellow neighbors.
“You can be right or you can be effective. ... So maybe we need to be thinking a little bit more about the end result and what is effective,” Connor said. “These people are an opportunity for us to give back to the community.”
Nicholson said he was encouraged by the opportunity to meet with the interested parties, state his case and hear their concerns and feedback.
“Moving forward, I’m really solutions-focused. I want there to be a cordial solution to all this so that I can, in any way, shape or form, meet the needs of the community without hindering the overall goal of helping the young men in that house,” Nicholson said.