Back to square one for group home

Published 7:55 pm Friday, November 29, 2019

During its most recent meeting, the LaGrange City Council voted against the rezoning of 1702 Adamson Street, in a rare split vote.

The use of the property as a place where six convicted sex offenders could live was discussed at length during a public hearing on Nov. 12, where no one spoke against the use. However, because the requested change from R-2 to R-3 would have been out of character for the area, the request was denied, and the council recommended that the owner request a special use permit instead.

Council members Nathan Gaskin, LeGree McCamey and Willie Edmondson voted in favor of the rezoning, and council members Jim Arrington, Mark Mitchell and Tom Gore voted against. Mayor Jim Thornton broke the tie.

“I think this is a situation where the use is not so much the issue as the zoning,” said Thornton of the reason behind his tie-breaking vote. “I think we probably have a tremendous need for the use, and we haven’t had a lot of opposition to it from the neighbors and so forth. But, when you are talking about putting six convicted sex offenders together in one place — and knowing you are doing that — I think it needs some regulation and some supervision and some oversight. I think that is what our group home ordinance provides for.”

The home was meant to replace a home that is being torn down with the Hamilton Road widening project, and the homeowner said that he worried the delay could result in the men becoming homeless.

“They have nowhere to go, and I am pushed for time. I have to move these people because they have to go somewhere because they are going to tear my building down,” said Jack Dallas Jr., the property owner.

The city council is required by law to advertise for special use permits, so a vote could not be made on the proposed alternative on Tuesday. However, Gore, who voted against the rezoning, said he felt if Dallas requested a special use permit instead, it would pass.

Several council members said during the work session earlier in the day that they felt the use was something that the men needed in order to become productive members of the community. 

“Those guys said that housing is real hard for them to find somewhere to go as sex offenders,” Edmondson said. “I believe in second chances, so that is what weighs really heavily on me. … If the public does not come against that, and they are not opposed to that, I’d like to find a way that we can work it through zoning.”

The lack of public comment against and the possibility of improvements to the property were also listed as reasons for the property to be rezoned.

“I’m in favor of him getting this rezoning, and the reason being is because it is so difficult in that old section of LaGrange to get anybody to do anything,” Gaskin said. “I was looking closely at the property values in some of those districts, and they’re falling through the floor. … It’s so rare to even get anybody to build anything.”

However, council members and city staff also worried that it would be considered spot zoning, which would leave the city open to future lawsuits.

“I feel like sometimes the conversation gets obfuscated a little bit by cause, and the discussion at the council meeting and the public hearing had a lot to do with the worthiness of the cause of what the gentleman is trying to do with this location,” City Planner Leigh Threadgill said during the work session. “Unfortunately, that’s not really something that we can even consider when we’re thinking about the zoning of the property.”

Threadgill said that rezoning one property in a way that does not match the character of the area could cause problems for the city down the road when justifying other out of character zoning denials.

“If we change the ordinance or the zoning map to allow that one property that use, then it is essentially conferring a special right to that owner, and that is something that is not authorized for us to do,” Threadgill said. “The other properties zoned around are GI [general industrial], then R2 [residential]. None of that property can be used in the manner that the owner is requesting for us to allow for them to use in this location.”

The zoning board also voted to deny the rezoning, but the council is not required to follow that vote. The date of the special use permit hearing and vote were not announced on Tuesday.