Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009 | 1:11 p.m.
Home Sweet Belmont
The operators of a group home that the city mistakenly licensed earlier this year in a rural Henderson neighborhood won approval from the City Council Tuesday night to continue operation, to the chagrin of neighbors and some Council members alike.
The City Council approved a use permit for Sweet Home Belmont, located within the Serene Country Estates rural preservation neighborhood, by a 3-2 vote. Council members Steve Kirk and Gerri Schroder cast the dissenting votes, arguing that the Council has the right to make land use decisions and that those decisions should be based on a project’s impact on the surrounding neighborhood, not the possibility of a lawsuit.
Attorneys for the home’s owners and the city alike had pointed out in a previous hearing that the city’s required buffer of 1,500 feet between group homes would likely not hold up under legal challenge, as the courts have struck down similar ordinances elsewhere because of the federal Fair Housing Act.
“I don’t think it’s our job to sit up here and worry about whether we’re going to get sued or not,” Kirk said. “It’s our job to make land use decisions based on reasonable judgment.”
Councilwoman Debra March agreed with Kirk that deciding land use issues is the right of the City Council, but said the Council had to be aware of all the factors in making those decisions.
“I also think that means being aware of the federal laws that supersede our own,” March said.
The use permit will be reviewed in six months.
Sweet Home Belmont began operation earlier this year, after city employees in the business licensing division mistakenly overlooked the city ordinance that would have required the home to obtain an additional use permit from the Henderson Planning Commission because it is located within 1,500 feet of an existing group home.
Though the Henderson Planning Commission denied the request for a use permit after the error was discovered, at an appeal hearing last month before the City Council, city attorneys informed the Council that since the mistake had been the city’s fault and the owners of Sweet Home Belmont had been allowed to invest in their business and operate for several months, the city was legally bound to allow them to continue to do so.
The majority of Serene Country Estates residents have staunchly opposed the group home, which prior to opening as a group home, had been found in 2008 to be housing several homeless individuals under a Clark County Social Services program.
The owners of Sweet Home Belmont said they housed the homeless temporarily, in order to pay the mortgage while waiting for their state license for the group home. Neighbors said the homeless residents were disruptive and confrontational, and said the lack of judgment the owners demonstrated in bringing the homeless into the neighborhood spoke ill of how the group home would be run.
After a hearing before the City Council last month, the Council indicated that it would issue the permit, but voted to delay the item for a month to give city staff a chance to work with Sweet Home Belmont’s owners and Serene Country Estates residents on some conditions make the home’s presence more acceptable for the neighborhood.
Serene Country Estates Action Committee Chairman Todd Croft said residents were disappointed that the conditions forged didn’t contain any measurable standards, and returned to the Council on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to block the permit.
Croft said his biggest concern was that the city had apparently done nothing about the mistake that led to the business license’s initial issuance.
“From our perspective, it’s likely that the error could occur again, and that’s really problematic,” he said.
Serene Country Estates resident Earl Hodge said residents aren’t opposed to the concept of group homes in their neighborhood, but they are opposed to clustering them closely together because of the impact they can have on traffic and nearby property values.
But with the permit issued, Hodge said there was little left to do but try to work with Sweet Home Belmont.
“Some conditions are better than no conditions,” he said. “We’re a pretty rugged lot out here; we can adjust to a lot of rugged conditions and we will adjust to this.”
Among the conditions Sweet Home Belmont owners agreed to was to limit the number of residents to six and to accept only residents who are 60 or older.
The crucial condition was one added Tuesday night, which requires the owners to retain three nurses on staff, so one will be on site at all times, and the others will be on call in case of emergency.
That condition won the support of Councilwoman Kathleen Boutin, who cast the swing vote in support of the facility after previously stating that she wouldn’t support the application unless she was satisfied that enough nurses would be on staff.
Sweet Home Belmont has all the necessary licenses from the state, a process which required extensive background checks and training. At the September hearing, the son of one of the home’s residents spoke glowingly of the care his mother receives at the facility.