NAVAJO COUNTY — Nagged by persistent questions, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors approved a new ordinance to regulate group homes – like drug rehab programs and independent living programs for the disabled.
The old county zoning ordinance didn’t mention group homes at all, which spawned confusion on the part of applicants and the public and made it harder for the county to make sure a group home met all state and federal requirements.
The new ordinance will take effect in December and give the county a way to respond to complaints and ensure state health department licensing to address things like parking and septic capacity, said Public Works Director John Osgood.
However, the county could not reject a group home application that met state and federal requirements, since it’s illegal to discriminate against anyone based on disabilities. Half a dozen group homes already operate in the county.
County officials said neighborhood questions about a proposal to open a group home in the Timberland Acres neighborhood in Linden prompted a review of the ordinance – and the proposal for an added set of rules.
“Our ordinance was silent on group homes for the disabled, so we said we really should take a look at our zoning ordinance to make sure we have a sensible process that’s understandable to both the applicant and the residents in the neighborhood,” said Osgood.
Group homes often draw opposition from neighbors worried about everything from traffic to property values. However, the federal Fair Housing Act bars discrimination based on disabilities, which includes cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, cancer, diabetes, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, developmental disabilities, mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism.
The ordinance wouldn’t add new requirements for single family homes with any number of family members or unrelated adults. The current ordinance focuses on the number of bedrooms when it comes to things like septic capacity and parking.
However, the state health department has many rigorous requirements for licensed group homes, including things like traffic, septic, accessibility, programs offered and safety. The county ordinance essentially adopts those state standards, but provides a way for the county to make sure the business meets those requirements and holds meetings to explain the operation to the neighborhood.
“If someone wants to build a seven-bedroom home, they have to size the septic appropriately,” said Navajo County Planning and Zoning Manager Sandy Phillips. “If someone converts to a group home, they might split rooms or convert the garage, so this allows us to make sure they’re in compliance.”
Osgood said it may not affect the Timberland Acres proposal, which is currently seeking a state license. If the home obtains the license, the county would review those documents, but probably not impose any additional requirements.
After December, the new ordinance will give the county the legal basis to get more involved in the approval process for group homes, as well as making that process “transparent” to neighbors, said Osgood.
“If their project complies with state requirements — which includes a survey or site assessment from the state and the county about the septic system and parking and fire protection – then they fall into compliance,” he said. “Our overall mission is to protect the public health and safety for residents and tenants and the applicant.”
“A lot of what the ordinance does is allow us to follow up and ensure they’re good neighbors,” said Phillips.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org