Council rejects planning board recommendation on permits for group homes

By Robin Jordan

Butte-Silver Bow commissioners voted last week to pursue amending the local zoning ordinance to require conditional use permits for state-licensed “community residential facilities” despite a recommendation against the change from the planning board.

The council of commissioners voted 10-2 to reject the planning board’s recommendation and schedule a public hearing on the ordinance change. Commissioners John Morgan and Cindi Shaw cast the nay votes.

Several commissioners said the public wants the change to provide transparency when such facilities as drug and alcohol half-way houses and other group homes plan to locate in residential neighborhoods. Supporters of the ordinance change say requiring a conditional use permit for such a facility would provide public notice to neighbors and allow them to voice concerns to the zoning board.

Under state law, licensed community residential facilities include drug and alcohol recovery houses, foster homes and other group homes.

Commissioner Eric Mankins first proposed the permit requirement last fall after the Butte SPIRIT (Silver Bow Persons Invested in Recovery and Inner Transformation) Center announced plans to purchase a 7-bedroom house on west Platinum Street for use as a transitional house for men recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. Neighbors complained that they were not given notice of Butte SPIRIT’s plan and opposed the location, citing safety concerns for area families with young children and the site’s proximity to West Elementary School and Montana Tech.

Butte SPIRIT withdrew its plan to purchase the house on Platinum Street. Last week, Butte SPIRIT announced that it had purchased a house at 609 W. Galena Street for the transitional home.

In October 2019, the council of commissioners referred the proposed ordinance change to the planning department for analysis. The planning board held a public hearing on the change at its virtual meeting June 4. After hearing comments, the planning board voted 6-2 to recommend against amending the zoning ordinance to require a conditional use permit to maintain a licensed community residential facility in a residential zone.

Before the council vote last week, about a dozen written public comments were read into the record and several citizens phoned in comments on the issue. About half the comments were in favor of the change. Most comments opposing the change said because foster and kinship homes would be included in those facilities needing permits, it would endanger the privacy and safety of foster children and parents.

County Attorney Eileen Joyce told commissioners under state law, community residential facilities are permitted in residential zones, so even if a conditional use permit was required, the zoning board could not deny the permit. The zoning board could impose conditions related to the property itself, such as requiring off-street parking or limiting occupancy.

Joyce said because state law defines foster and kinship homes as community residential facilities, they could not be exempted from those facilities requiring conditional use permits. There could be legal implications for the county if it enforces the requirement on certain types of facilities like half-way houses but not on foster homes, she said.

Planning Director Lori Casey told commissioners that when someone applies for a conditional use permit, the zoning board hold a hearing on the application and notice of the hearing is published in a local newspaper. The notice includes the name and address of the applicant. In addition, the zoning bylaws require placing a sign in the yard of the applicant so that close neighbors are aware that a hearing will take place. If the zoning change takes place, she said, the yard signs would have to be required for foster homes seeking permits.

Commissioner Brendan McDonough made the motion to reject the planning board’s recommendation and schedule a public hearing, saying the public wants to be aware of what types of facilities locate in their neighborhoods.

Commissioner John Morgan made a substitute motion to accept the planning board’s recommendation, saying commissioners should have more faith in Butte-Silver Bow’s staff and its boards. That motion failed by a 9-3 vote.

Commissioner Michele Shea said while she does have faith in the county staff, the council’s goal is to provide the transparency neighbors of facilities deserve. She said the state did a great disservice to communities by combining foster homes with other types of group homes, and that should be addressed by the state legislature. However, she said, the zoning change proposal “merits more time for research and conversation before we say no.”

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