Even before they moved into 439 Delaware Road in Frederick, Sean Nicholson and Bradley Meadors knew not all of their new neighbors would approve of their vision for the 3,376 square foot home.
“We don’t actually do very much here other than live,” Meadors said as he and Nicholson sat at the dining room table with another of Nicholson’s roommates on May 28. “James here, for example, came here a month ago. He sleeps here, he goes to work and, most evenings, we’ll have a family dinner. ... We’re a family. We share house responsibilities.”
Admittedly, there are discrepancies between what is typically defined as a family and what Meadors described. State property records indicate the home is purely a residence, which fits with the low-density residential zone it falls under, but neither Meadors nor the other homeowner listed in the property record lives at the house. Nicholson, a recovering addict and co-founder of Solid Ground Recovery, a Frederick-based addiction recovery service provider, lives and works out of an office on the first floor, while the home’s other rooms are leased out to a group of men recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
So even though Nicholson and Meadors claim the house is purely a residence, some other members of the River Crest community, who found out about their new neighbors after they moved in April 20, view the matter differently.
“What really disturbs us the most is that there was no effort made whatsoever to inform the community beforehand of what was going into that property,” said Joseph Spelman, who sits on the board of directors of the River Crest homeowners association. “This is not a personal thing; we certainly don’t have anything against those young men. We recognize that there is an opioid crisis and we absolutely want to see progress made in that, but the fact of the matter is, what they’re using that house for is incongruous with the nature of our community.”
Spelman and others argue that the property essentially amounts to a single family home that is being run by a business, Solid Ground Recovery, as a boarding house or converted apartment building, which they say is a clear violation of the residential zone the home falls under.
Carolyn Bell, who serves as the board’s treasurer, mentioned several other instances in which the city identified businesses that were being run out of homes in the community that were quickly shut down as a result, including a photography studio.
“I honestly can’t imagine any other neighborhood being sympathetic to this, especially with the way they came in under the radar,” Bell said.
Many neighbors share Spelman and Bell’s sentiment that, by not coming forward to the community, the “addiction recovery safe house,” as the property was quickly dubbed, was willfully trying to undermine any potential zoning violations by establishing themselves in the community.
Similar views were expressed by residents at the May 7 meeting of the community’s Neighborhood Advisory Council. Neighbors who ran a Google search of Meadors’ name identified him as Nicholson’s co-founder for Solid Ground Recovery. From there, residents pointed to the limited liability company’s description as an abstinence-based recovery service provider. Allusions to “clients” and “services” on the website were seen as further evidence that a business was being run out of the property in violation of the zoning.
Making matters worse, Nicholson, who originally said he would attend the meeting himself to talk to neighbors, had to cancel when the NAC meeting date was pushed forward several days, leading to even more frustration.
“What you heard at that meeting was a lot of people saying ‘We don’t know what’s going on and nobody’s answering our questions,’ and there were a lot of questions: How is the property managed? What is the check-in procedure? What is the procedure to allow people into the house? What are the zoning laws?” said Kris Fair, a NAC 7 coordinator who helped organize the meeting. “... And without anyone filling that vacuum of information, people are left to their own devices to figure out what’s going on.”
Nicholson said that he did intend to come to the meeting, but was unable to attend due to a speaking engagement he had already agreed to on the day the NAC meeting was rescheduled to. Shortly after the meeting, the property received several violation notices from the homeowners association, prompting Nicholson and Meadors to contact an attorney, Peter Fitzpatrick with the Weaver & Fitzpatrick law firm, rather than address the residents themselves.
The city was also looped in around the time of the meeting. Gayon Sampson, an executive assistant to Mayor Michael O’Connor, was hastily called from a budget hearing taking place at city hall that night to hear residents’ concerns at the NAC meeting, but it wasn’t until Wednesday when the city’s legal and planning departments issued a joint memorandum advising against the city taking any zoning-related enforcement actions against the property in question.
While the memorandum acknowledged that the R6 zoning of the neighborhood dictates buildings must confine themselves to being single family homes under the city’s land management code, the letter also recognized that the federal Fair Housing Act classifies individuals recovering from addiction as handicapped individuals, affording them certain protections that the city would be at risk of violating if enforcement actions were taken.
“It is likely that determining that the residents are not a family and requiring the residents and owners to cease the current use of the property would actually or predictably result in discrimination, forming the basis for a disparate impact claim,” the memorandum reads in part, citing prior court cases in similar situations where cities have been ordered to modify the language of their ordinances in order to give handicapped individuals the same opportunity to rent under the FHA.
While the memorandum was more or less in line with what Nicholson and Meadors expected, some residents dismissed the memorandum, preferring instead the direct opinion of the mayor and other elected officials presented in a public meeting.
“The memo did not seem final, that was clearly the city attorney’s recommendation to the mayor and the mayor circulated it but did not comment,” Spelman said when reached for comment Friday. “So I don’t consider the issue closed … until the mayor and aldermen explicitly say that they are not going to enforce the zoning violation on this property, I think we’re going to keep pushing. We want to hear it from them, from the mayor, specifically.”
O’Connor clarified his stance on the issue in an email response to The Frederick News-Post’s questions Friday evening. In his response, the mayor defended the recommendations of the city’s legal and planning staff.
“They are my technical experts, and I value their expertise. To ignore it or attempt to direct it to some outcome of my choosing, based on political pressure, would be irresponsible, in my opinion,” O’Connor’s response reads in part. “The staff interpretation is based on the city code as currently written. So we are enforcing the code of the city. If the facts as we understand them are not accurate, or change, we will reevaluate.”
Still, O’Connor also acknowledged the need to hold a meeting involving the city, the property owners and residents in the near future.
“Perhaps with everyone in the same room, we can agree on the same facts and get everyone the same answers at the same time,” O’Connor wrote. “I hear the concerns of the community.”
Nicholson and Meadors agreed that a meeting would be most welcome. Both men believe their house and its occupants have a lot to offer the community.
The men who live in the house are sober and in active recovery and all applicants are screened prior to signing the lease, so no violent criminals or sex offenders are accepted, Meadors said. In addition, no clinical treatment takes place in the home. Even individuals who are prescribed drugs like Suboxone, which is used to help wean addicts off opioids, are not eligible to live in the house due to the risk, Nicholson said, adding that the leaseholders are tested for drug and alcohol use regularly.
For the leaseholders, homes like the one at 439 Delaware are a safe haven. One of the men, who asked only to be identified by his first name, Rob, provided a description of the home quite different from the perception of some opponents that the property is a boarding house or profit-seeking business.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten a full-time job, I bought a car on Friday, I was able to talk to my son for the first time in probably three years ...,” Rob said, listing his milestones. “I walked in here without two pennies to rub together, it took me two and a half weeks to get a job and they’ve given me an opportunity to get my life together and stay on the right track, the same way I’d want to be able to do for the next guy.”
Nicholson and Meadors, themselves recovering addicts, both benefited from their experiences in similar properties during their own paths to recovery, which only strengthens their resolve to keep opportunities for recovery open to others who still struggle with active addiction.
“The real story lies in the fact that, in reality, there’s a huge crisis and epidemic in this country and it’s very much happening in Frederick County and Frederick city, Maryland. The needs and the things needed to help combat this problem are what’s happening here in this house,” Nicholson said.