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Residential care zoning laws

by Shenita Bridges
(Troutman, NC, USA )

Visitor Question: I'm trying to become a licensed caregiver. When I went to my local office to receive a zoning letter, they were taking their time about answering.

So I called them and their response was they are not sure if they can give me the letter because there is a licensed group home around the corner, that is less than 1/2 a mile away.

I want to make two points about this. First, my home will not be a group home; it will be for residential care. Secondly, I will be housing individuals who have special needs.

My question is can two licensed facilities exist with in 1/2 a mile from each other if they are unrelated?

Editors Reply: We are sorry it has taken us so long to answer this fair question.

The answer will depend entirely on (a) what your zoning ordinance actually says, (b) whether the zoning ordinance treats all persons the same and does not treat disabled (including the special needs population) differently, and (c) how courts in your state have been viewing group homes.

The prohibition against housing discrimination against persons with a handicap is part of the Fair Housing Act amendments of 1988. A handicap is defined as a mental or physical condition that limits one or more daily activities.

To research the first two of the above criteria, find a copy of your local zoning ordinance online, at city hall, or in a library. Then read everything pertaining to group homes there.

If you want to pursue this matter, you may need to hire an attorney to research how the courts in your state view group homes.

On another note, residential homes for groups of disabled adults are very commonly referred to as group homes, so it may be that what you propose does fall under the category of group homes. Again, that depends on whether your zoning ordinance or state law provides a definition of group home. The zoning official's reasoning isn't necessarily faulty, although it might be.

A second point from your post is highly unlikely to make any difference. You state that your business is unrelated to the existing group home, and that factor probably is irrelevant.

The limits on the distance between group homes is often called the spacing requirement. It seems as though your zoning official is relying on the spacing requirement in your particular ordinance.

One note of comfort perhaps is that some state courts recently have been ruling that a spacing requirement is in fact a discriminatory action, since other types of housing commonly do not face spacing requirements.

All in all, if you want to fight this, you have four options described next.

1. You can call to schedule an appointment with the supervisor of the person who told you that you likely can't do this. This might get the decision overturned, although it isn't likely.

2. You can ask the planning department about the procedure for a zoning variance in your case. A variance is just an exception to the literal interpretation of the ordinance. But you have to demonstrate a unique hardship based on the characteristics of your building or land, so if you city government is really conscientious about granting variances, probably you wouldn't succeed.

3. Ask your state's fair housing officer to share experience with others in similar situations.

4. Go to court. If you choose this route, make sure you have attorney who has some experience in defending group homes, as well as being tough and aggressive. Of course, if you demonstrate a discriminatory intent, your case will be considerably stronger.

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