Group-Homes Issue Is Sent Back To The Planners -- Bellevue Council Shelves A Hot Potato
BELLEVUE - The city's attempt to upgrade its law governing group homes in residential neighborhoods, a political hot potato all year, was tossed back last night to the Planning Commission.
The City Council had been set to discuss the issue in a study session.
The council's move was a victory for Councilwoman Georgia Zumdieck, as well as residents opposed to neighborhood teen shelters.
The commission now will rework a plan that it thought was sound until City Attorney Richard Andrews essentially derailed it after it was sent to the council last month for final approval.
The council last night was about to discuss three new options - two of which were proposed by Andrews and city staffers and a third, less restrictive version offered by Councilwoman Chris Heaton and despised by neighborhood activists.
Zumdieck wasted little time in making her recommendation to send the issue back to the commission.
"The Planning Commission has the expertise," Zumdieck said. "They have spent the time listening to people and talking about this."
The measure passed unanimously, but not without intense debate between Zumdieck and Heaton. The five other council members stood somewhere in the middle.
While there has been no dispute about group homes for the elderly, disabled or domestic-violence victims, many Bellevue residents are opposed to teen shelters where there are single-family homes.
Lorretta Lopez, a neighborhood activist, said after the study session that she has no concerns about foster-care homes, where up to four youngsters can live with a married couple under the city's current law, but she opposes homes where more than four youths would be housed by a "care-giving" staff.
Lopez and others fear that crime, drugs and violence will follow if large institutional teen shelters are allowed in their neighborhoods.
Noting such concern about public safety, the commission, after six months of work, decided last month to put more restrictions on group homes for teens, a policy that Andrews said was discriminatory.
The commission's original proposal allowed shelters for four or fewer teens in any part of the city but placed a six-bed limit on shelters in most residential neighborhoods. Domestic-violence shelters would have had a cap of eight residents in those same neighborhoods.
Andrews re-emphasized his point last night, saying he saw no difference between an 18-year-old woman with a child who sought shelter in a group home for domestic-violence victims and a 17-year-old woman who went to a teen shelter to escape an abusive relationship.
"I don't think you can make a distinction," Andrews said. "They are both people living in a group-home setting."
However, Andrews said the city could be more restrictive toward teenagers who have a history of violence or crime and who may pose a danger to a community.
The proposal to change the city zoning began last year when an advocacy group, Friends of Youth, wanted to open an eight-bed shelter for teenagers in the Spiritridge neighborhood in southeast Bellevue.
City officials were eager to grant the request. But Spiritridge residents appealed the issue to Bellevue hearing examiner James Driscoll, who ruled in their favor. Driscoll sided with the residents, noting that the city's current zoning codes allow only "Class 1-A" group homes in single-family neighborhoods, meaning the only kind of shelter for teens would be a foster home with a maximum of four children.
Before sending the issue back to the commission, the council agreed on four basic points, which it wants the commission to consider:
-- Any group home with up to six people, including staff and minor children, should be allowed anywhere in the city without having to apply for a conditional-use permit, which would require public meetings and a council decision.
-- A procedure to allow a group home to apply to have up to eight residents without having to apply for the permit.
-- Being able to exclude youngsters who are deemed dangerous or at-risk to the community.
-- Registering all group homes, except those that may be federally protected from registration.
The council wants the commission to rework the issue and have it sent back for final approval before August, when the council takes a month-long recess, but Mayor Don Davidson said he realizes that may not be possible.
In that case, the council wouldn't likely take up the issue again until September.
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