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August 22, 2014

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Henderson City Council:

Licensing error forces Henderson to begrudgingly OK group home

Home Sweet Belmont

A simple mistake made several months ago has apparently bound Henderson to allow a group home in Serene Country Estates to continue operating, over the objection of residents and City Council members alike.

Even though the issuance of a business license to Sweet Home Belmont, a group home for the elderly, in January was a mistake, city attorneys informed the council that because the mistake was the city’s fault and the home’s owners had been allowed to invest so heavily in their business and operate it for several months, they had a legal property right to continue doing so.

“(The owners) bought the home, they invested substantial amounts in it and were allowed to build up their business for eight months,” Deputy City Attorney James Martines said. “Once that happened … the majority of case law throughout the country suggests that at that point, their business interest in the property has vested.”

The Council indicated that it would grudgingly grant the use permit, but continued the item for 30 days to allow the attorney representing Sweet Home Belmont’s owners to work with city staff and Serene Country Estates on a number of strict conditions, including limiting the number of residents to six, requiring two caregivers on site 24 hours a day and limiting the age of residents to 60 and up.

The use permit would be reviewed after six months, with its permanent issuance based on Sweet Home Belmont’s compliance with the conditions.

When the owners of Sweet Home Belmont originally sought a business license, city employees in Henderson’s Development Service Center mistakenly issued it, not realizing that the home would require a conditional use permit in addition to the business license because of a city ordinance that requires any group home located within 1,500 feet of another group home to obtain a use permit.

Sweet Home Belmont is about 200 feet from another group home; if not for that, a business license would have been sufficient.

Martines, however, said the city’s ordinance requiring the separation may not be enforceable anymore, based on recent case law related to the federal Fair Housing Act that found such distance requirements to be discriminatory.

When the error in issuing the business license was eventually discovered, city inspectors required the owners of Sweet Home Belmont to apply for a conditional use permit, which the Henderson Planning Commission denied after residents of Serene Country Estates expressed concerns about traffic, the quality of care given at the facility, its impact on their property values and the home’s past.

For several months last year, the owners of Sweet Home Belmont allowed the home to be used to house homeless individuals placed by Clark County Social Services. Residents of Serene Country Estates were outraged when they discovered what was going on at the home, telling city officials that the home’s indigent residents were disruptive and had confronted and threatened to kill one resident.

Attorney Michael Gowdey, who represented Sweet Home Belmont co-owners Francis Kariuki and Terry Waihenya, said his clients took in the homeless clients in order to pay their mortgage while they went through the licensing process for the group home. He said his clients didn’t break any law, but recognize now that it was a mistake and Kariuki issued an apology to neighborhood residents.

Gowdey said the resident who threatened a neighbor did not live in his clients’ home, but in another home nearby that was being used for the same purpose. Since the home began to function as a group home, he said, there have been no problems.

“There really is no legal reason to deny my clients a permit,” Gowdey said.

While many of the comments by residents and City Council members focused on the home’s past use, City Attorney Elizabeth Quillin informed the Council that the home’s past could not be a factor in their decision because it was not directly related to the application for a conditional use permit for a group home.

Residents, however, had other concerns as well.

Earl Hodge, the vice-chairman of the Serene Country Estates Neighborhood Action Committee, said he worries about the quality of care being given in the home, citing an incident in April in which a caregiver locked herself and a patient out of the house on a chilly day and required the assistance of neighbors to gain entrance to the home through an unlocked sliding door in back.

Hodge also said he and his neighbors were concerned that issuing the permit would create a precedent that would encourage investors to purchase foreclosed properties in Serene Country Estates, where larger lot and home sizes are more conducive to group home operations, and open a string of the facilities.

“If you do not control (group homes), they will take over the neighborhood,” Hodge said.

City Councilman Steve Kirk, whose ward includes Serene Country Estates, said Kariuki and Waihenya showed a blatant disregard for their neighbors in allowing the homeless to stay in the home and that their permit application should be rejected based on that, regardless of the risk of a lawsuit.

“Let’s go to court,” Kirk said. “Fine. I’m so sick and tired of this council being afraid of a lawsuit. … I’m not going to do that. I’m standing up for the neighborhood because this is the right thing to do for the neighbors.”

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