By Barbara Pash

Despite public outcry, controversy, and the involvement of state legislators, if a health care company can get the proper licenses, a large Ruxton residence may be transformed into a private mental health group home.

“I don’t know what else to do. I challenged the law and have been rebuffed,” said State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Sen. Jim Brochin

Sen. Jim Brochin

Brochin’s legislative district includes Ruxton, where Sheppard Pratt Health System is proposing to convert a six bedroom/seven bathroom residence into a small private mental health group home. Bought for nearly $1.4 million, the home at 1506 Labelle Avenue would be renamed a “Retreat Group Home.” CORRECTION and was being advertised in national publications. (Sheppard Pratt officials said it was not being advertised.)

When Sheppard Pratt announced this proposal last spring, it ignited a firestorm of controversy. Del. William Frank, a Republican in Brochin’s district, said the community opposed the facility on several levels. They saw it as a commercial enterprise. They were concerned about the transient nature of the population, with six months the maximum stay and most stays probably much shorter. They objected to the potential increase in traffic on the narrow neighborhood roads.

“It’s a quality of life issue, too,” said Frank. “Will they keep the place looking nice? Will it be landscaped? Will there be cars parked in front every day?”

Peggy Squitieri, executive director of the Ruxton, Riderwood, Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, cited the commercial nature of the facility as the prime objection. The association wrote a letter to the editor to the local newspaper outlining objections.

“Our position is pretty much out there,” said Squitieri.

The community distaste for the project led to an emotionally charged meeting in April between community members and Sheppard Pratt representatives.

“People got boisterous,” said. Frank attended both that meeting and one he and Brochin planned later in the month with a small group of Ruxton community leaders who “wanted to talk about their options,” he said.

Brochin, who received numerous calls from constituents about the issue, sent a letter to Gansler on April 26 about what he termed “the first-ever self-managed group home” proposed by Sheppard Pratt.

Under the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1988 and other non-discriminatory laws, Brochin wrote that he understood that Sheppard Pratt had the legal authority to open a group home, and could circumvent local zoning laws about establishing businesses in residential zones.

But he questioned whether the facility should properly be classified as a business and not a group home since residents would be paying a minimum of $2,000 per day and receiving treatment for mental health issues. “Is it more realistically an Outpatient Facility or Community Care center?” Brochin asked in his letter. CLARIFICATION: Sheppard Pratt officials denied the facility would charge $2,000 a day.

Brochin got his answer in a June 14 letter from Robert McDonald, chief council for opinions and advice in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. State law allows small private group homes if licensed for that purpose, he wrote. Furthermore, the federal Fair Housing Act “constrains the ability of the State or local governments to regulate group homes that serve individuals with mental disorders,” the letter states.

Licensing of group homes is the responsibility of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which determines if a facility is properly classified at the time of application, according to McDonald. His understanding is that Sheppard Pratt will apply for a license as a therapeutic group home under the appropriate state law.

Health department spokeswoman Karen Black said that community opposition to a project is not part of the application approval process. According to the Annotated Code of Maryland, a private group home is a community-based residential program with services. A small group home housing four to eight individuals in a single-family residence is permitted in all residential zones.

Group home licensees must fulfill administrative, psychiatric rehabilitation and residential rehabilitation program requirements. The facility must pass a fire safety inspection, be located near transportation facilities and, if new, meet the area’s general zoning requirements for size, density and land use.

Sheppard Pratt has not yet applied for the health department license, although it expects to do so this summer.

The process takes about two months, from start to finish, according Frank, with the health department following a procedure whose “overriding principle is that the facility is an appropriate setting for the purpose,” he said. “As long as it’s appropriate, generally a license is granted.”

Bonnie Katz, Sheppard Pratt’s vice president of business development and support operations, said, “We plan to be operational in the fall” at the Ruxton site.

Katz said meetings with community members are continuing. “We said all along that once these group homes are in existence, generally communities find no need for elevated levels of concern, and we feel that will happen in this case,” Katz said.

Frank said he was not surprised by the Attorney General Office’s response. “Federal housing laws are pretty clear” on the subject, he said, “but this is a major change to the neighborhood and the neighbors are understandably concerned.”

Frank said that the other district delegation members — Republican Del. Susan Aumann, and Democrat Del. Stephen Lafferty — have been in quiet conversations with Ruxton community leaders and Sheppard Pratt.

Speaking for the delegation, Frank said “we’re frustrated with the impasse. Sheppard Pratt has not made a very compelling argument why the facility has to be at that location.”

“Sheppard Pratt has been accommodating on landscaping, hours of operation, visiting hours and traffic,” he said, “but the neighbors need assurance that the patients won’t be violent drug addict types.”

As for Brochin, he didn’t necessarily agree with the Attorney General Office’s legal opinion. “Right now, though,” he said, “I’m not sure what else can be done.”