Without a word of discussion, Gainesville City Council members unanimously voted to deny a request that would make an illegal group home legitimately zoned.
The vote Wednesday marks the third time Harold Hinchman, owner of the Agora House for Men, has been turned down by the council.
But he wasn’t there for the rejection, a fact that neighbors pointed out Wednesday as at least six of them urged council members to deny Hinchman’s request to rezone a home he’s currently using illegally as a home for men recovering from drug and alcohol addictions.
“I find it interesting that he’s not here to speak on his own behalf,” said neighbor James Allen.
Hinchman already is illegally using the two-story home at 1050 Park St. as a group home. The property is zoned as a single-family residence. Its accompanying Residential-I zoning does not allow for group homes.
The City Marshal’s office cited the Agora House for Men on Oct. 23 for running a group home in the Park Street home without a valid occupancy permit. But Hinchman has asked that the city rezone the property to a more group-home friendly Residential-II zoning with a special-use permit that would make the group home legal.
Jon Hollifield, the treatment director at Agora House for Men, asked the council Wednesday to approve the request. He said that previous accusations made by neighbors at last month’s hearing by the Planning and Appeals Board — claims that crime has increased since the Agora House moved there and that men have harassed neighboring women — were unfounded. He said no complaints were filed until a sign announcing the zoning request was posted in the yard.
“Furthermore, the same people who are making the claim do not even know how long we’ve existed in the neighborhood,” Hollifield said. “It’s kind of hard to get a time line of when this crime rate increased if you don’t even know how long we’ve been there. All of these claims — especially residents yelling at the neighbors, soliciting money, causing the crime rate to increase — are unfounded and stereotyped fears of what they envision drug addicts and alcoholics doing.”
But other neighbors said the owner of the Agora House had disrespected them and the city’s zoning code by moving in the neighborhood without the proper permits.
“I don’t think anybody on Park Street neighborhood has a problem with the mission of the Agora House. We know these people need help,” said Buddy Myers, a Park Street Place resident. “We’re objecting to the way it’s done and where it’s done in our R-I neighborhood, and we want to maintain the integrity.”
Another resident, Reeves Doss, said one of the residents of the Agora House had come in his back yard asking for money, and that residents came and went at late hours.
Bill Morrison, who operates an optometry office near the residence, asked council members why they had not forced Hinchman to move the Agora House from the Park Street neighborhood already.
“He’s calling your bluff; he’s saying, ‘Come on, I don’t think you’re going to do anything about it,’ ” Morrison said. “I think we need to stand up to this guy.”
Morrison said Hinchman’s illegal operation was contradictory to his ministry. He suggested that Hinchman was more interested in making money than helping people break their addictions.
“Is this money or is this ministry? And I just don’t believe it’s ministry with this particular man,” Morrison said. “So basically, turn it down, and I don’t know where that lawsuit is. I wish it was already settled where you could go forward ... but I’m on your side, and I know y’all are on our side.”
The council currently is involved in a legal battle with Hinchman over another home he operated illegally before trying to get the proper zoning and permits in a Residential II zoning district.
In September 2007, the council denied Hinchman’s request for special-use permits in three homes on Ivey Terrace and Northside Drive.
And again in December 2007, the City Council denied a request to move Agora House for Men into two buildings in Midtown.
Hinchman and the owner of another group home in the city filed suit against the city in March 2008, claiming the city violated the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring the group homes to move.
Both the city and the plaintiffs have filed for summary judgment in the case, but the outcome has yet to be decided in the U.S. District Court in Gainesville.
Myers said he was sorry the City Council had to spend taxpayer money on the lawsuit.
“I’m sorry that that money couldn’t be used for a skateboard park,” said Myers, referring to an earlier decision in the night to ban skateboarding in certain public areas.