YORK – After hours of discussion this past week, the York City Council voted in favor of allowing the New Life Place group/care home to operate in a house at 605 East Ninth Street.
Staying at the group home will be women who have recently been released from prison, on parole, on post-release supervision and on probation. The objective, as earlier explained by the owners, is to help the women transition back into the community, be supported in sober living, begin employment/school, etc.
These are people who are classified as being at risk of homelessness and/or with unsupported housing and/or people diagnosed with mild to moderate mental health and/or substance use disorders.
A number of residents in that area have voiced their concerns about having such a facility in their neighborhood, with worries about safety for their children, parking issues, heightened crime, lowered property values, etc. They also said they weren’t happy that no one from New Life Place had told the city ahead of time about their plans, that none of them had been notified – and there was no discussion on the matter until residents started to ask questions.
Because so many residents in that neighborhood petitioned for denial of a special use permit, it was determined that six of the eight council members had to vote in favor of it in order for it to pass.
Seven voted in favor of allowing New Life Place a special use permit, with Clarence Hoffman voting against it.
This matter came to the council with a recommendation for denial from the planning commission.
Alison Janecek, an attorney for the owners of New Life place, said, “the concerns raised by the planning commission were all directed at limiting conditions. They rejected it without making recommendations regarding their concerns. It was arbitrary and we ask it not be given much weight by the council. The planning commission outright denied the special permit instead of making recommendations with respect to the conditions.”
The women who would be living there would be under rules set forth by probation.
And there would be more rules, Janecek said, from the New Life Place itself, including a 10 p.m. curfew on week nights, midnight curfews on weekends, random drug testing, no visitors being allowed and all of them would be expected to do one hour of community service per week.
“Service providers (such as New Life Place) must meet the zoning requirements of local municipal codes,” Janecek said. “We are getting into the zoning due to this. That’s why we are here today. This really is a new use and many communities are dealing with this” because these types of transitional housing and the programming that goes with it was only created a few years ago, through legislation. “Many zoning regulations didn’t address this type of use. There has been a big learning curve as communities address this for the first time.
“The council needs a rational basis for the conditions or to deny, which can be considered in the district court if discretionary,” the attorney said.
She reviewed the property itself, noting that it was once used by Epworth Village for housing adolescents, “so it is already outfitted for group use. It is a six-bedroom house with three bathrooms and a rated occupancy of 10. It has a fire sprinkler system, steel fire escapes, exit signs. It also has four off-street parking spaces with a large driveway. The lot area is 12,000 square feet.”
Then, Janecek presented newly proposed conditions, which were tightened and heightened from before and now being offered by the New Life Place owners.
The new proposed conditions were as follows: up to six unrelated persons (original proposal was for 10), facility will only serve women, facility will not allow sex offenders (which was further modified to add “or convicted of a violent offense”), permittee shall provide four off-street parking spaces (which was further modified to add “must not park in front of neighboring properties”), permittee shall remove the “Serving Hands” sculpture within 14 days, no signs for the facility shall be permitted, permittee shall install security cameras, residents shall have a curfew of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays and midnight to 6 a.m. on weekends with exceptions for work or medical reasons, the facility shall be staffed overnight from the hours of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. (this was also modified to add that the overnight staffing would be required no matter how few people might be staying there), the permittee shall provide the contact information for the operator to the city’s building and zoning staff, the facility can be inspected at any time by a city representative with reasonable notice, the city council can revoke the special permit for willful non-compliance with its conditions, and the special permit is limited to the permittee and is not transferrable with the sale of the property.”
The attorney also said she wanted to remind the council “this is a land use decision, that is what the council is here to talk about. This proposal is reasonable and appropriate for the area based on the land use effects, its historical use, the house size, the lot size, the location is in the R-3 zoning district. We listened to the concerns and we have made this revised proposal since the planning commission meeting. Denying the permit because you don’t like these people could put the city in sticky territory due to discrimination. We are aware of the petition that has 160 signatures (against allowing the permit) but we are also aware of a petition with more than 300 signatures in support. There are people in support of this in York.”
“I don’t know anyone arguing against these programs, but there are questions about how it is taken up, the locations and the conditions,” said Jerad Sorgenfrei, a resident in the neighborhood in question.
He asked that city officials contact others for more information before making a decision.
“I hope everyone has spent time to research all of this,” Sorgenfrei said. “Norfolk has dealt with this and I recommend you reach out to them about the risks and to get more information. And I recommend you reach out to some of the other service providers/operators who could provide more information. I encourage the city to reach out to non-bias resources.”
He also asked for more definitional work to be done regarding the ordinance.
“There should be restrictions on this on a case by case basis,” Sorgenfrei said further. “Lincoln is still working on how they can operate their facilities there. Lincoln is looking at density and other requirements and I encourage you look at these also.
“I think there is a lack of information around this, we aren’t doing enough,” Sorgenfrei continued. “I think concern is justified. I think New Life Place has learned a lot – they did fly in under the radar and came in here the wrong way. They didn’t communicate with the city properly – if they had handled it that way, this could have been more smooth. There could be other locations that would be more appropriate where there wouldn’t be as much push back from the residents. I do appreciate that they say they have listened and they are trying to address it. That step shows they are trying to communicate and trying to come into the community in the right way.
“They keep saying they are here to serve people in this community. We need to address how we are serving the people in York. Very few inmates in the prison here are from York, so how many York residents will need a program like this? This community already has a prison, a mission and we do a fair share to help many people. It is not our job to make state probation’s job easier or solve the state prison overcrowding issue,” Sorgenfrei said further.
“I think it is important to exhaust all our resources to get more information for now and into the long-term,” he continued. “I do want to recognize their new proposals are a step in the right direction and this is the very beginning of this process. We are just opening the book on all this. All sorts of problems could be created and there are a lot of questions that have not been answered. Everyone should be confident they know what they are voting for.”
A woman named Alex has been living, as a client, in the New Life Place house. She said she is involved in her programming, has two jobs and she has custody of her youngest of four daughters at this time. “I do appreciate the community allowing me to have that place to rebuild my independence. I hope you extend that same generosity to other women coming in. I think York is a great place to restart.”
Another woman, named Beth, said she was from York, then made “bad choices, I was in prison here, and I’m glad that York has now accepted me back. I’m proud to say I’m from York. Will there be people who won’t make it (through the transition from prison), yes, but I’m proud to say that for 16 years now of making right choices, I can say that people can change. York is a good community. I will leave the zoning to you guys.”
Many people spoke for and against the facility being allowed in that location.
Some said they worried about elderly neighbors not being able to utilize their on-street parking spots because of congestion.
Some asked if New Life Place would have to pay lodging taxes.
Some questioned the New Life motives, saying “they are only in it for the money, they only want to make money,” as it receives thousands of dollars a month per client from state probation.
Some said they were worried about selling their homes during retirement, if they will be able to find buyers with this group home in the neighborhood.
Some said these types of transitional homes “have requirements to necessitate that they (the clients) be more responsible. This provides safe and reliable housing for people having to start from scratch, for those who have addictions or mental health issues. The goal is to integrate them back into the community with a support system. A large number of women would benefit from a place like this, because of the location of the prison. I also want to point out that transitional housing is supposed to be an olive branch of sorts for people who have paid their dues and to be a safe place for them to finish paying their debt. “
One resident in that neighborhood said, “the planning commission vote wasn’t arbitrary or unreasonable. I am asking you to not fall into a pit of over-sentimentality and only rely on common sense.”
Another said, “This discussion isn’t about whether York is a great place to lift people up, this is a conversation about whether the location and the supervision is appropriate. There is no discrimination here, this is a community trying to understand a business coming in. There will be more vehicles, there are already children in the location, we have concerns about the supervision. You can do drug deals and do drugs during the day too.” She also noted that a woman was already staying in the house, with a child, although no allowances had yet been granted by the city. “I would also hate to see the permit be approved out of fear of being sued. We need safeguards and supervision.”
And another residents said, “This gentleman came to York, found that old group home, figured it would be OK, bought it, put up his monument, said he was in business and said everyone accept us and love us. I’ve spoken to people on my block – I feel it’s commendable what they want to do but they have to follow the process other people follow when starting a business and they didn’t. They didn’t follow the proper procedure. Do you respect our homes? We don’t want them destroyed by ruining our property values. We are concerned about what’s going to be inflicted upon us.”
And yet another said, “Regarding the planning commission decision, I was here for that meeting and the attorney said it was arbitrary – it was not. They were here a long time and they went through the whole process. I would hope the council would trust the planning commission process and listen to the people of York, not just one group of people coming in.”
A neighbor said, crying, “We all have gut feelings, and I have gut feelings about this. Listen to your gut. His (the owner’s) actions have not been acceptable. We want to feel safe in our neighborhoods and not fear harm. Our property values could decline. From the get-go we haven’t had communication with him (the owner). Let’s have foresight, not hind-sight.”
York City Administrator Joe Frei said the New Life Place owners had addressed all of his concerns and “went beyond those. I think there is compromise to be made on the supervision.”
Sheila Hubbard, city council member, said she felt “many of your population have come from trauma and during the night they may need someone. A supervisor needs to be there, even if just one client is there.”
“No one has a crystal ball and knows what will happen,” said Councilman Ron Mogul. “I just know I firmly believe we need to give people a second change. The benefit of a place like that could save someone’s life. People are important and worth saving. I can’t see into the future, but I think people would be of benefit from it.”
Hubbard said she could understand why the owners would find the house to be a good place for such a facility, “it already has six bedrooms, a fire escape, a fire system, it was set up for this type of use. And I’ve talked to different neighbors in that area who say it’s not a good place.” She also said she was disappointed in how at times, over the course of this past year, the conversations became adversarial.
“This is the point where we can say we need to see these certain things happen and if not there will be repercussions, right?” Council member Christi Lones asked York City Attorney Charles Campbell who nodded in the affirmative. “There is something called ‘Not In My Neighborhood,” and that is a real thing. And I’m not comfortable with calling them ‘Those People,’ because they are just people. I am really struggling with this. I do like the concessions that have been made. We can’t legislate morality, that’s not our job. We are here to do what’s right regarding proper land use.”
“And as a business owner, I take a little offense the comments that ‘they just want to make money,’” Mogul said.
He and Councilman Ron Saathoff said, then, in unison, “Don’t we all in business?”
“We all want to be a success in our business,” Mogul said.
“And they have shown that they are willing to do what we’ve asked them to do,” Saathoff added.
“I do believe the supervision, every night, regardless of the number of people there, is important,” said Councilman Scott Van Esch. “And I’m glad the number of residents is now down to what it is.”
The council (with the exception of Hoffman) to allow the special use permit with the heightened restrictions brought before them by the owner and negotiated during the public hearing process.