Sober Living

Sean Nicholson gives a tour of one of the bedrooms used as a sober living house in a Frederick home as part of the group Solid Ground Recovery.

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.

Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.

Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

(33) comments

burtsboy1995

I hrew up on Delaware Rd, Monocacy Village part. My Mom is still lives there and has been there since 1960. I recently moved in to cre for my Mother. We both welcome these gentlemen our Street. These resident in the newer part of the area need to relax and put there energy into their own life. Monocacy Village was and is a terrific community. These newbies in this area need to focus on slowing down when they drive on Delaware and East Ninth and mind their own business. I am sure original owners who still live in Monocacy Village welcome our new nieghbors. With all the isdues in our town today, what constitutes a family. We have homeless, kids who are hungry etc..put your energy in being the solution not the problem.

LeBlancp01

Please note per Frederick City Land Management Code a "Family = Two or more persons living together as a single housekeeping unit, but not including a group of persons occupying a rooming house, tourist home, motel, hotel, group home, nursing home, fraternal or similar living arrangement.". Interesting.

pappyjoe

These guys recovering from horrible vices created in their lives are just looking for a quite, relaxing, calm home and neighborhood to feel safe from temptation and look what they have got!! bigot, two faced neighbors that if possible, dig through their past before making people think they can walk on water and maybe will find a dark, dark concealing life they lived. These type of trouble making A.H.`s make me sick to the stomach.

gardenwhimsey

I think those who are making remarks insinuating the residents near the group home are objecting to the residents on the basis of their addictions are assuming something that is not true. I think their objections are probably based on the fact that it is being used as a group home or half-way house in an area zoned for single-family residences.

shiftless88

So what is the problem? I mean, what is the downside of this halfway house? Are they zoning nazis or is there some specific issue?

shiftless88

This does point the the issue surrounding the lack of any sort of regulations or control on these types of addiction recovery homes or centers. They are in a free-for-all zone

LeBlancp01

I am surprised the Rehab Home Owner/Operators do not just declare the Home Use a Airbnb for special needs guests. The City has regulation for same but is not Enforcing same. I am not sure why the City is picking on Special Needs guest providers.

KellyAlzan

FNP Staff: Donald burgess does nothing but post condescending post to other commentors. He goes out of his way to be as rude and nasty as possible. I’m fairly certain that his $7 per month subscription does not entitle him to misusing the commenting privileges. Please ban Donald burgess.

public-redux

Dear FNP staff: Please ignore KellyAlzan’s request. I enjoy Burgessdr’s informative albeit condescending and rude comments. We are all grown up enough to disaggregate content from tone. Tone trolling, which is the basis for KellyAlzan’s comment above, is an ad hominem, which your TOS specifically prohibits. Waggle a finger meaningfully in KellyAlzan’s Direction. Your adoring public

Vegan

@Kelly Alzan Stop trying to censor people by getting them banned. The 1st amendment should apply to social media sites because they take tax dollars by telling the government they are the new town squares.

FCPS-Principal

Kudos to the druggies for trying to become un-druggies. Now, what skills do they have they can offer employers other than the state? As far as the local complainers go, tell them to go pound sand. Unless the druggies start raping their daughters, than that's a different story. In that case call the RNC and tell them you have some good new candidates, but they come with baggage.

Bette

I can't imagine complaining about this. Do these people have nothing better to do with their time and energy than to put up roadblocks for those who are trying to overcome addiction?

Dwasserba

"...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." We have lived next door to a managed group home about 20 years. So far so good. No issues.

lurksaroundshadows

For those that are comparing the house to those in the downtown or Hood College district need to reread the article. Yes, those homes are also classified as single family, however, they are not in an area that is Zoned R-6. That is one of the two issues according to the article. It is a ZONING issue and not just a "single family" home issue. The second issue according to the article is an HOA issue. The government has nothing to do with or authority over the HOA itself. They are self governing per contract law and they need their own attorney, time and money to fight the issue on that side. I do know from house hunting years ago that the houses we started putting contracts on that were within HOA's we were given copies of their rules and regulations and were told we will have to sign off on them stating that we had read them and will abide by them.

Burgessdr

Federal regulations, the Fair Housing Act, trump any silly HOA regulations. If the HOA challenges it they will lose. If they discriminate they will end up paying big damages.

LeBlancp01

Any thoughts about the City definition of Family when placed in Single Family Home. Family = "Two or more persons living together as a single housekeeping unit, but not including a group of persons occupying a rooming house, tourist home, motel, hotel, group home, nursing home, fraternal or similar living arrangement.". It seems that all the owner needs to do is declare the Home is a Airbnb for special guests.

DickD

This should never be an issue about recovering addicts. It should be simply a matter of residential code violations. There are places apartments or leased rooms would be proper, this isn't one of them. Get a new City attorney. He should be prepared to defend the City from ridiculous law suits and earn his money.

Dwasserba

But if you're currently struggling with addiction you aren't in violation and can live anywhere...addicts are among us. Why shouldn't recovering addicts be offered the tacit welcome and support of at least, no resistance until there's an issue? Blessed are the guys with jobs and a car payment...

gabrielshorn2013

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup] Deb! Folks complain about the lack of services to help recovering addicts, and when one is located near them? Not in my backyard! Hypocritical. Let them alone unless there is a problem. They need the community's support while trying to get themselves on the right path again.

Burgessdr

Near Hood College there are undoubtedly houses that are rented out and occupied by 5 students. This is considered a "single family" use for zoning purposes. Similarly a house that is rented out and occupied by 5 recovering addicts is also considered a "single family" use. Open and shut. Black and white. Simple.

DickD

And you know that there were no zoning exceptions made for Hood College?

Burgessdr

DickD. Get with the picture. Be informed. There is no "zoning exception." A single family residential use can have as many as 5 unrelated people in the house. Its not a business, not a boarding house. It is a single family residential use.

DickD

Not a business and not a boarding home? Why do they sign leases and pay money on the contract?

Burgessdr

DickD. Maybe you are clueless. But renters sign a lease all the time. Renting out a home to renters is a residential use. You see the renters RESIDE there. Hence residential use. There is no business conducted there. People sleep, eat, shower, watch TV, etc there. Hence a residential use. By your twisted argument anyone leasing a home is running a business in the home. It's real simple, even you should understand. A family in a residential zone is where there are no more than 5 unrelated people RESIDING in the property.

Shemp

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

DickD

And you really think it is okay for a boarding home? I don't blame the neighbors for complaining, I would too. Zoning is meant to protect property rights.

willbill22

Burgessdr, "Family in a residential zone is where there are no more than 5 unrelated people RESIDING in the property", "Get with the picture. Be Informed". The City Attorney's own memo to the Mayor stated that the property is being leased to an average of 12 individuals. It's public record. Go read it and tell me how that lines up with R6 zoning. It's not about the residents and their backgrounds, it's about the city's lack of oversight and unwillingness to enforce proper (and fair) code.

DickD

Clueless? With 12 non family residents living there. You are the clueless one, Don.

Burgessdr

It's a 5 bedroom house

niceund

Unless the home is in a high income residential neighborhood the City will not care.

gardenwhimsey

Exactly my thought. If this was one of the houses immediately downtown or around Baker Park, it would be viewed differently by the city. It sounds like a business to me.

DickD

It may be 5 bedroom, but that doesn't change the fact that 12 are leasing.

LeBlancp01

The City and unfortunately many residents do not seem to care about City regulation. Look at the 150+ active Airbnb business in town. Currently the City is ignoring they own "Tourist Home regulations."

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