A request to waive Pasco County’s conditional use permit requirement for a proposed group home for handicapped youths has drawn opposition from its potential neighbors, in a Wesley Chapel neighborhood.
The Pasco County Planning Commission has continued the public hearing on the request to its Feb. 3 meeting, to allow Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein time to work on refining conditions in an attempt to address concerns expressed by neighbors and some members of the planning board.
Goldstein has recommended approval of the request, but in doing so, he provided background and a set of proposed conditions.
The issue involves a proposal by Elevated Youth Services (EYS) to operate a residential treatment facility for young men, ages 13 to 17, with multiple or dual diagnoses of emotional or mental illness, at 26318 Lawrence Ave.
Before the applicant purchased the property, Nicholas B. Browning, owner and clinical director of EYS, sought a zoning verification letter from the county.
In that Aug. 17 request, Browning told the county “we are looking provide housing for up to 12 youth in the home.”
Frederick Humberstone, a planning and zoning tech II for the county, responded to Browning’s request by informing him on Aug. 18: “Under the AR-1 zoning the proposed use as a residential youth group home is a permitted use.”
EYS then closed on the property for the group home.
It turns out that Humberstone’s determination was incorrect: A residential group home is a permitted use, provided that it has six or fewer residents, under the county code, according to Goldstein.
Browning told the planning board that clients served by EYS need a group-home setting, which operates similar to a family, as part of their treatment plan.
Dan McDonald, a fair housing attorney representing EYS, said requiring EYS to go through the county’s conditional use permit process would constitute a violation of federal law.
In the planning board’s agenda materials, Goldstein summarized EYS’s primary argument. He said EYS claims that Pasco’s land development code “either facially, or as applied, discriminates against handicapped residents (including those that would occupy the EYS facility), because handicapped residents are required to go through a conditional use process, but similarly situated non-handicapped residents are not required to undergo the same process.”
The county attorney’s office has recommended that changes be made to address the legal issues raised by EYS, but those changes are not yet in effect, Goldstein said.
The attorney also noted that “requiring EYS to go through the conditional use process at this time could subject the county to potential liability, and would be a difficult decision to defend in this particular case, because of the existing Land Development Code definitions, and because of the August 18th, 2021 zoning verification letter issued by the Planning and Development Department.
“Accordingly, while the County Attorney’s Office is certainly not admitting to all of the allegations in the alternative relief application, the County Attorney’s Office is recommending approval of the application,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein also told the planning board that approving the request with conditions would provide more protection for neighbors than they could receive if the group home had six or fewer residents — which would have no restrictions.
But neighbors questioned how the residents moving into the home would be screened, noting they don’t want to worry about the safety of their families.
They also raised questions about whether supervision of the residents will be adequate and voiced concerns about the residents “roaming” the neighborhood.
Other issues raised included drainage problems in the home’s backyard and inadequate parking.
Browning said there would be 24-hour staffing, with a four-to-one ratio of residents to staff. He said the youths would be educated through online schooling.
Planning board member Chris Poole said he believes that residential treatment centers are important, noting he has a child who is being assisted at one.
However, he added: “I think we owe it to the residents to go through this (conditional permit process).”
McDonald reiterated that requiring EYS to undergo a conditional use permit hearing would violate federal law.
Goldstein noted the county could be found liable and be required to pay damages.
Published January 12, 2022