Attorneys for Gainesville are fighting allegations that the city has discriminated against the owners and residents of two substance abuse recovery programs in the city.
In papers filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Gainesville attorneys say that the city acted appropriately when it denied requests from Ricky Martin and Harold Hinchman for the zoning and special-use permits that would allow them to continue running Martin’s Alpha House for Men and Hinchman’s Agora House for Men.
Both the Alpha House and the Agora House provide housing and support for men who are recovering from substance abuse and alcoholism.
In a 30-page response to a complaint that attorneys for Hinchman and Martin filed in February, the city asserts that its denials of Martin and Hinchman’s zoning and permit requests were "substantially related to the public health, safety, morality, and general welfare of the citizens of the City of Gainesville."
Those attorneys say the city has not violated the Federal Fair Housing Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act because neither Hinchman, Martin nor the residents of their two recovery homes are handicapped, disabled or qualified under those two laws.
In a complaint filed by Steven Polin, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in Fair Housing claims, Polin alleged that the city’s application of its zoning code regarding Hinchman and Martin violated the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act because it discriminates against groups of disabled people "by failing to take into consideration the nature of the disabilities of the residents of the dwelling."
But attorneys for the city see things differently.
"There’s nothing that indicates there’s veracity to their claims," said Dana Maine, an attorney retained by the city’s insurance company.
Maine said that the city’s denials of Hinchman and Martin’s rezoning requests were not done with malicious intent, and city officials are not prejudiced against group homes for recovering addicts and alcoholics.
"The city has approved group homes in the past, and certainly that will be an issue that comes up in the litigation," Maine said.
Polin responded Wednesday evening and said the fact that the city has approved other group homes poses a major problem for the city’s defense. But he wouldn’t elaborate.
Late last year, both Hinchman and Martin were ordered to quit operating their group homes after both were denied the permits required. They had previously been operating group homes on Ivey Terrace, Northside Drive, Riverside Terrace and Hillcrest Avenue without the proper zoning or permits.
After city marshals discovered those facts, Hinchman and Martin applied — and were denied — for the changes in zoning that would allow them to continue operating.
The two men currently face charges in state court for not moving out in the 60-day time frame required by the cease and desist orders.
The city says that the two men, by operating their group homes in a residential district without a permit, are violating the city’s code, which was amended in May 2007 to change the definition of group home from a single dwelling with seven or more unrelated people to a single dwelling with four or more unrelated people.
Hinchman’s three homes housed six men per house, while Martin’s housed seven.
Polin claims the city amended its code after hearing complaints from citizens who did not want group homes in their neighborhoods.
"The fact that they amended their code ... to make it more restrictive for group homes to be in residential zones, and then made all the group homes come in and apply for (special-use) permits and then denied them and told them that they had to leave," Polin said earlier this month. "I think that’s pretty blatant in terms of Fair Housing Act violations."
But Maine said the occupancy limits for group homes the city adopted in 2007 are "very, very typical" of other cities.
"You have these occupancy limits in hundreds, thousands of jurisdictions across the state," Maine said. "It has been held as constitutional time and time again."
Polin said the complaints against the city have nothing to do with the laws, only their application.
"We’re not challenging their authority and ability to enact laws and ordinances under the zoning code; what we’re challenging is the manner in which they enforce and apply their zoning code," Polin said. "This lawsuit is about the discriminatory nature and the discriminatory fashion in which the city applied this group-home ordinance to Agora House and to Alpha House and what they’ve done to Ricky Martin and what they’ve done to Harold Hinchman and the effect that it’s had on the residents of the houses.
"That’s what this lawsuit’s about."