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Editorial: Broken lives count; don't shut the door on them
Denial of homes for those seeking to escape addiction, sex trade are based on vague fears
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Jennifer Robson, director of Beautiful Feet Ministries, speaks about her background with victims of sex trafficking Tuesday during a community meeting held to discuss the rezoning of 50 acres off Weaver Road. Gainesville-based Straight Street Revolution Ministries is proposing to build a campus off Weaver Road for victims of sex trafficking. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Straight Street proposal

What: Hall County Planning Commission considers whether to recommend rezoning 50 acres at 4825 Weaver Road for a residential program for those leaving the sex trade

When: 5:15 p.m. Monday

Where: Hall County Government Center, 2874 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

What’s next: The planning commission’s recommendation moves on to the Hall County Board of Commissioners for consideration.

Sometimes life breaks people.

Sometimes to heal the broken places they turn to drugs. Sometimes to make ends meet, they turn to prostitution. Without a support system, people take steps that lead to dark places.

For others, loving role models have sheltered them from these realities. Unfortunately, sometimes that desire to shelter leads us to push away people who have nowhere else to turn.

But when we become so sheltered that we’re more concerned with the property value of our homes than the value of broken human lives, we have a problem.

Hall County has recently grappled with the intersection of those two concerns. Synergy Recovery Center, a home that would have helped men build sober, stable lives, was voted down last month by the Gainesville City Council after complaints from neighbors.

Last week, neighbors shared concerns about Straight Street Ministries’ plans for a residential program to help victims of the sex trade.

In both cases the arguments revolved around property values and whether or not the proposal was appropriate for a family-friendly residential area.

Property values are tricky moving targets influenced by myriad factors.

In the case of Synergy, which was proposed for 746 Cleveland St., similar programs are nearby. In fact, there is a Salvation Army homeless shelter next door.

An argument for decreased property value seems quite a stretch. In the case of Straight Street Ministries, real estate agents are slow to say what the impact would be either way.

Consider Eagle Ranch, a residential program for troubled teens. Property values of nearby homes there have not been negatively affected, according to real estate and planning experts. In fact, the prices of homes in that area have actually increased since Eagle Ranch faced similar opposition during its start in the 1980s. Though again, myriad factors are involved.

Consider what could be done with 50 acres. A subdivision with 45 homes would bring more density and could adversely affect property values. The question may come down to whether a buyer is concerned over what is nearby.

Another common argument involves zoning. Plans for the sober living home required a special use to be approved in the current residential zoning. Neighbors argued the home didn’t fit on a street with families living nearby. But with the homeless shelter and another recovery center nearby, this argument seems more emotional than factual.

Straight Street is asking to rezone its 50 acres to planned residential development from agriculture-residential, which allows homes, churches and “minor subdivisions.” The requested zoning allows for a mixture of single-family and multifamily housing and should “conform to the existing character and development pattern of the surrounding area.”

The proposal is not particularly dense for the area. The character is residential. It seems strange a residential program wouldn’t fit in a residential area.

Planning staff believe it does fit. It also could also fit in a commercial area. Yet, if proposed elsewhere, neighbors there likely would complain as well.

It seems for many, concerns may boil down to safety. But rehab facilities like Synergy don’t typically bring any more crime to the area than what naturally occurs, according to local law enforcement.

It’s less clear what kind of threat women recovering from a life in prostitution would bring to the area. Fears of pimps coming to claim their property may not be assuaged by the staff at Straight Street, who note how women in the industry are easily replaced and unlikely to be pursued. Perhaps the planned 24/7 security and a gate are not enough.

But we come back to the question of, if not here, then where? If such a proposal does bring crime with it, would that be better in a commercial district where people come and go freely, shopping and dining?

Property owners’ rights further complicate the matter. How far do we want to go in allowing government agencies to dictate to owners what they can and cannot do with their properties? When neighbors are allowed to decide land usage based on personal whim rather than legally defensible arguments, we have strayed far from basic concepts of property rights and into dangerous territory of mob rule.

In making such zoning decisions, it should matter less how many people are in the audience in color-coordinated T-shirts; what matters more is the level of legal restriction the law allows in limiting property owners’ choices.

Synergy’s owners poured thousands of dollars into the property to renovate it. Will they recoup that investment now that neighbors have had their say?

Homeowners’ fears of possibly decreasing property values shouldn’t trump the value an owner invests in his property. A desire to keep damaged souls off their tidy little doorstep is not justification, especially when those souls have chosen to work on repairing the scars of their life.

One can understand, to a point, concerns about such proposals moving in next door, just as they would a big-box store settling nearby. It’s important, though, to resist giving in to irrational fears and instead weigh actual risks and downsides against the potential benefits such programs can provide a community.

Rather than worry solely about the effects on us, consider if your relative was struggling with addiction or trying to leave the sex trade. If they are strong enough to choose to leave such a life, wouldn’t you want a place to support them as they do?

Surely that answer must be yes. And if so, the ministries and organizations who step up to do the work deserve that support as well.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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