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Group home gets fresh hope from city
Council to consider request by Agora House for Men
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GAINESVILLE -- The Agora House soon could have a place to call home.

Harold Hinchman, owner of the Agora House for Men, went before the Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board once again on Tuesday, but this time his request was approved. If Gainesville City Council gives the final OK in its December meetings, the Agora House will relocate its group home and office to two Midtown buildings.

The planning staff recommended and the board voted 5-1 to recommend approval of Hinchman's request to rezone two buildings in Gainesville's Midtown area from light industrial to general business. But before the vote, a motion to deny and a second threatened to be another bump in the road for the recovery program that's had a hard time finding a permanent residence.

Board member Doyle Johnson made the motion to deny Hinchman's request Tuesday night. His motion was then seconded by Dexter Stanley, making for yet another emotional hearing for Agora House program coordinator Jon Hollifield. "My stomach turned upside-down when he voted to deny it," Hollifield said.

Two months ago, the Agora House was ordered to cease operations in three homes on Ivey Terrace and Northside Drive. The order came after neighborhood residents spoke against the presence of recovery programs in their neighborhood. At that time, Hinchman's request for special-use permits on the homes was denied.

"We've taken the board's recommendations out of their mouth ... to relocate these men," Hollifield said. "And then we find it, and they want to deny it then, it's like ‘Where do you want us to put them? In a pasture somewhere?'"

Johnson said he did not intend to cause the Agora House grief when he made the motion to deny its request. He said he does have two problems with the location of Hinchman's proposed relocation, and one of those is personal.

"My first reaction as I look at the location of that place ... if I had a brother, I wouldn't want him to be there," Johnson said. "I just didn't think that was the kind of environment somebody in recovery ought to be in, in a warehouse."

Johnson said he thought a more home-like environment would be more appropriate for the recovery program. But Hollifield says the warehouse will be transformed into a habitable environment if the City Council gives the go-ahead.The remodeled warehouse will include a full kitchen, a day room with a big-screen television, and a bathroom with six showers, five sinks and five toilets. Also, there will be 19 bedrooms with two beds each, Hollifield said.

Johnson's other issue with the request was from a zoning standpoint. He said the recovery program would not fit with the revitalization of the Midtown area. "It was spot zoning, in my opinion, and they cleared that up a little bit," Johnson said. "But I still think it was just not what we ought to have there."

Spot zoning is when a small area of land is singled out and placed in a different zone than that of neighboring properties. The courts have found it illegal in some areas of the country.

However, there is property that is zoned for general business adjacent to the property in question, which keeps the rezoning from being considered spot zoning, said Rusty Ligon, Gainesville's planning director.
"In our opinion, that's not a case of spot zoning," Ligon said.

In the end, Johnson was the only one on the board to vote in favor of denial. Stanley, who had seconded the motion to deny, left before the vote was taken. Ligon said Stanley had to leave the meeting early for a previous engagement.

Board member Joe Diaz made the motion to approve Hinchman's request, and Johnson was the only board member who voted in opposition. "It passed, and that's the main thing," Hollifield said. "It was still gut-wrenching."

Hinchman and Hollifield will face the Gainesville City Council at its Dec. 4 meeting. If the council votes to hold a second reading on Dec. 18, the Agora House, which has already been approved for bank loans, will be set to start renovations on the Midtown buildings.

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