Zoning change a flawed
By Robin Jordan
Last week, Butte-Silver Bow’s council of commissioners voted to reject the recommendation of the planning board and move forward on amending the zoning ordinance to requiring conditional use permits for state-licensed community residential facilities.
Those who support requiring the permits say the permit process, which includes a public hearing before the zoning board, would provide residents notice if a facility, such as a drug or alcohol rehabilitation transition house, is planning to locate in their neighborhood. Neighbors would be allowed to comment at the zoning hearing, but under state law, the zoning board cannot deny such a facility the right to locate in a residential neighborhood.
The problem with the proposed change is that the state law’s definition of community residential facilities includes foster and kinship homes. Several people who commented at last week’s council meeting pointed out that the conditional use permit process would publish the names and addresses of owners of foster homes. That could endanger foster children and parents and create added stigma for children in foster homes, commenters said.
As Commissioner Michele Shea pointed out, the problem is with the state law’s inclusion of foster homes in the broad list of community residential facilities. This makes it impossible for the local government to exclude foster homes from inclusion in the permit process
If Butte-Silver Bow were to require permits for some types of group homes and not others defined in the state law, the local government could face legal woes for selective enforcement.
Requiring a conditional use permit isn’t going to stop a licensed facility from locating in a neighborhood. The only power the zoning board would have is to impose conditions on the property, like requiring off-street parking or limiting occupancy. It also won’t stop smaller group homes that are not required to be licensed by the state from locating in a neighborhood.
If the county follows the state law and treats foster and kinship homes the same way it treats other group homes, the ordinance change could adversely affect foster parents and children.
There’s not a lot to be gained here. On the other hand, requiring permits could make it less likely people will be willing to open their homes to foster children. Given the large number of children in our community needing foster homes, that would be tragic.
Until the Montana Legislature addresses the problems in the state law, it would be premature for Butte-Silver Bow to impose a requirement that provides little to residents of neighborhoods, other than an opportunity to complain publicly, while putting additional burdens on those willing to take a troubled child into their homes.
Butte-Silver Bow’s planning board put serious effort into making its recommendation. The council of commissioners needs to think long and hard before going forward with the ordinance change.