TWINSBURG — An opinion from an independent law firm claims the city’s zoning code permits the operation of a “sober home” in single-family residential dwellings, and that to try to block such a use could result in “violations of federal and state laws and substantial legal bills.”

Law Director David Maistros and Mayor Ted Yates discussed the Walter-Haverfield law firm’s findings at City Council’s Aug. 28 meeting. Council had requested the opinion. The sober house is proposed by John and Teri Heer, who have established a nonprofit agency called Akron Center for Recovery. They plan to house four recovering addicts and a house manager in the home.

Walter-Haverfield’s conclusion states, “The city should not take action to prevent or prohibit the proposed sober home,” and that the city “should not adopt any changes to the code to prohibit or impede the operation of a group home, including a sober home.”

The opinion continues: ”Permitting the operation of the proposed sober home and other similar facilities will allow the city to avoid an expensive and time-consuming legal dispute. The city should avoid any action that indicates that it has acquiesced to community bias and stereotypical fears where there is no actual direct evidence of direct threats to persons and/or property from a sober home being located in a residential neighborhood.”

In contrast to an Aug. 2 informational session about plans for the sober house or recovery house at 1890 Edgewood Drive, which attracted about 100 people, only a handful of residents attended the Council meeting. Nearly everyone who spoke at the Aug. 2 meeting opposed the sober house, saying it was not an appropriate use for residential zoning and voicing concerns about safety.

Michael Turle has been one of the many Twinsburg residents to speak out against the sober home.   "By enforcing our Zoning code, we are not discriminating against any individual, we have simply legislated 'building use' in districts," he said. "By supervising medicine distribution in this 'sober kome,' our Twinsburg Zoning code defines the use of this building as a 'Residential Care Facility,' which is not a permitted use in R4 zoning.  

"Further, our Zoning Code does not discriminate against the recovering addicts nor does it discriminate against the Heer couple, it only states that if anyone wants to have a 'Sober Home' that you must do it where it is properly zoned ... that includes having a support system around the sober home."And to that end, there may be some legislative support coming.

Maistros said city officials will closely follow the progress of a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would amend the Fair Housing Act to address state and local zoning laws regarding recovery facilities.

The bill specifies that federal anti-discrimination laws would not trump state or local zoning laws that prohibit recovery facilities in residential areas. Recovery facilities also would have to comply with all state and local zoning laws in order to receive federal funds.

Twinsburg resident Sue Clark said she is promoting passage of the bill and is seeking support from top officials such as Gov. John Kasich, U.S. Rep. David Joyce and U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.

She urged local residents to call state and federal officials and ask them to support the bill.

Clark said she believes the sober house is largely a zoning issue, and is disappointed in city officials, questioning whether they thoroughly researched the zoning code.

Clark said she believes the city’s code restricts the location of facilities which dispense medications, which operators have said the proposed sober house would do, so that could make the proposed location off limits. 

She said she believes an issue with a group home in Aurora was similar to Twinsburg’s situation, and Aurora officials took action to uphold the city’s zoning code. That group home eventually moved out of town.

However, Twinsburg officials say they have researched the issue, and are not turning their backs on residents’ concerns.

Councilmen Brian Steele and Sam Scaffide both said that while they support offering help to recovering alcohol and drug addicts, they do not feel the proposed site in Twinsburg is appropriate.

“I won’t be satisfied with doing nothing,” Scaffide said. “We will continue to research this issue and do what we can legally do to address these facilities. We want to be proactive.”

Yates said that abiding by federal and state laws does not always please local officials or residents, but there have been many cases where localities spend countless hours and money arguing against them, to no avail.

“There are a lot of gray areas involved in looking at this issue,” he said.

Walter-Haverfield’s conclusion is the city cannot legally prevent the sober home from operating under the guidelines of the Fair Housing Act and Ohio Revised Code Section 4112.02(H), which prohibit housing discrimination against disabled people.

As for the city’s zoning code, the law firm believes it permits the operation of such homes as long as the occupants meet the code’s definition of “family,” which is “one or more persons occupying a premise and living as a single housekeeping unit, whether or not related to each other by birth or marriage.”

The law firm also believes the city cannot change its code to intentionally prohibit sober homes, because that would violate state and federal fair housing laws.

“The likelihood of a plaintiff’s success in this situation is very high,” the opinion states.

The law firm further writes that the city would be unlikely to succeed in prohibiting the sober house on the premise that it is a home-based business.

“Courts have flatly rejected claims that a group home, such as a sober house, is a commercial enterprise unsuitable for residential districts,” the opinion states.

The city could eventually change its zoning code to regulate sober homes, according to the opinion, but the regulations must apply to all single-family uses and cannot discriminate against individuals with a disability.

Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 Ext. 4189 or klahmers@recordpub.com