Ever since city marshals discovered the Alpha House for Men, a group home for recovering addicts, operating without a permit last summer, Gainesville city officials have continually faced the question of where to place group homes in the city.
In nearly every month since August, representatives from one group home after another have come before Gainesville’s planning and appeals board, and ultimately to the City Council, seeking permits and zoning for their services.
And in nearly every month since August, the City Council has decided yea or nay on those requests.
Because of the deluge of requests from owners of these recovery houses, in November, then-Gainesville mayor Bob Hamrick asked that a study be conducted to find the best place, whether residential or general business, for group homes to locate within the city.
The city’s Unified Land Development Code designates group homes to General Business zoning and to Residential-II districts. Those in Residential-II zones must obtain a special-use permit from the city before operating a group home. Depending on the outcome of the study, the city could change its land-use codes.
Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler said the study will involve looking at laws governing housing issues and how other cities with housing stock similar to Gainesville’s deal with the issue.
Shuler said not all communities are faced with the situation Gainesville is, largely due to different housing situations. Most of the group homes in Gainesville have set up shop in residential neighborhoods with a lot of rental property, Shuler said.
"Not all communities are going to have that," Shuler said. "Newer communities may not have nearly as much rental property, or affordable rental property, to make a group home a viable economic venture as an older city with a diversity of housing types on the high and low end."
The city became aware of the range of the group home issue last summer after a marshal accidentally discovered Ricky Martin operating two group homes on Hillcrest Avenue and Riverside Terrace.
The marshal’s office soon found out about more group homes operating illegally from a quick check of drug court lists — some group home residents have gone through drug court — and the Internet. Also, the owners of the homes who were cited told the marshal’s office about the others, and so the city became aware of a phenomenon it had not yet dealt with, said Gainesville’s Senior Deputy Marshal Debbie Jones.
"Once you find one, you find more, because they start identifying each other," Jones.
Shuler said the City Council is trying to come up with an approach to zoning and permits when it comes to group homes. But the philosophy is hard to develop when they deal with one after the other, he said.
"We still face monthly individual cases. It’s hard to have that discussion when you’re also trying to deal with a particular request," Shuler said.
Most recently, the City Council voted 4-1 to approve a request from Turning Point Residential Recovery to build a four-unit, apartment-style building on Erskin Avenue, a road surrounded by a mixture of land uses such as single-family and neighborhood business. The building will serve as living quarters for 24 men participating in Turning Point’s recovery program.
In the cases of Martin and Harold Hinchman, owner of the Agora House for Men, the City Council did not approve their requests to continue running their group homes. Martin had two homes; Hinchman had one on Northside Drive and two on Ivey Terrace.
At the time, City Council members gave different reasons for the denial of Martin and Hinchman’s request.
Councilman Danny Dunagan said the single-family residential neighborhood was no place for Martin’s substance-abuse recovery house. Councilman George Wangemann said he voted against Hinchman, because he had not followed the city’s laws to begin with and had begun operating his recovery home under the radar.
Shuler said the problem was that there were too many group homes in that particular neighborhood.
"Several were clustered in a certain part of town," Shuler said. "That raises issues with the residents."
Both Hinchman and Martin were issued cease and desist orders in November. Neither moved out by the time specified, according to Jones.
The two will be arraigned in State Superior Court at the end of this month on charges of operating without a business license and a certificate of occupancy.
There have been other requests for group homes, even another by Hinchman for a building in the Midtown district, that the City Council has faced. Yet, it has been hard to decipher Council’s approach to the issue.
Shuler said the issue cannot be discussed generically, because even though all are group homes, they are all very different situations.
"It’s very difficult to always match up comments on one and balance them on another, because the other may not be the same thing," Shuler said.
"Whenever you have discretionary decision-making like that you get different opinions, and you get different reasons why someone may or may not support a particular application," Shuler said. "That’s just the nature of the beast."