Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Bristol Township may revisit moratorium on recovery houses
Posted: Thursday, November 26, 2015
Bristol Township Council could resurrect a proposal for a six-month moratorium on new houses for recovering substance abusers, though the ban could result in a lawsuit.
Before a crowd of more than 100 people, including individuals in the recovery community, councilwoman Amber Longhitano again suggested to council a proposed ban so officials can work on implementing zoning changes that would create a “balance” in the community.
Longhitano, who recently proposed a moratorium that council voted down, believes the township is oversaturated with recovery homes, which are located in residential neighborhoods mostly in the Levittown area. The most recent numbers show at least 93 recovery homes are operating in the township, up from 72 in September, according to Longhitano.
“We need to put it (the moratorium) in play to create a solution to the problem,” she said, adding that the township needs to look at its zoning ordinances in relation to distance and density requirements to protect the township from becoming “institutionalized.”
She added she had concerns that some individuals who own and operate recovery houses have no experience with individuals with substance abuse problems and their issues. Longhitano also suggested the township create a voluntary certificate of excellence program where recovery home operators would agree to annual inspections to “get rid of rouge homes.”
In recent weeks residents have appeared at Bristol Township Council meetings to complain about the proliferation of recovery homes expressing concerns including the impact on neighborhood property values and public safety.
Many expressed those same concerns Wednesday night.
One man, who said he lives across the street from a recovery house, told the audience he has no problem with people getting sober. But that he is tired of residents milling around outside the homes in the early morning yelling at people on the phone.
“That is not sober living,” he said.
Another man claimed recovery homes are taking money from those who live there, but not screening them. He also accused the township of failing to inspect the homes.
The man claimed to know of homes with as many as 15 residents, far above occupancy limits. He also claimed one home had six women living in a basement with only one exit.
“Why can’t that be regulated,” said the man, who asked not to be identified.
Recovery home residents and supporters were in the audience Wednesday night, but none spoke.
Some recovery houses are operated by former addicts who are looking to serve others who are attempting to lead clean and sober lives. It’s unclear how many recovery houses are located in Bucks County.
The Bucks County Recovery House Association, a grassroots owner group that has undertaken voluntary self-regulation, operates roughly 58 homes in Bensalem, Bristol, Bristol Township, Falls and Middletown. Those RHA recovery houses are the ones the Bucks County Probation Office currently sends those recently released from jail.
About 30 percent of the recovery homes operating in Bristol Township are Recovery House Association members, according to Bristol Township Police Lt. Ralph Johnson.
Municipal and state officials have expressed frustration with the increase in the number of recovery homes, which operate under federal guidelines according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and The Fair Housing program and face virtually no regulations on how the homes should operate.
Under the Fair Housing Act, recovery homes are not considered businesses, something that many in the audience found outrageous.
“We are frustrated too. We can’t compromise federal law,” said state Rep. Frank Farry, R-142, “We’re handcuffed as much as you are.”
The Bucks County Recovery House Task Force is currently working on a report it anticipates releasing next year which likely will recommend creating a voluntary certification program.
Local officials can enforce local zoning and building code requirements only, but in Bristol Township there are only two building inspectors serving the entire community, officials said.
In Bristol Township, like Bensalem, homeowners must obtain occupancy permits before moving into a property. It’s unclear if those inspections are required with rental properties when tenants move in.
But Councilman Joseph Glasson, who voted against the moratorium, said his decision was based on the township solicitor’s advice. He urged individuals to file complaints with the licenses and inspection department if they suspect homes are violating township ordinances.
“With all due respect, I understand every position all of you have,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best decision making I can for the 52,000 residents of Bristol Township.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Steve Santarsiero, D-31, though, advised the council to move forward with a moratorium despite the lawsuit risk.
“I would take that risk,” he said. “This has gotten to such a critical point, you have to do something to stop the bleeding.”
But Council President Craig Bowen had reservations.
“We can’t afford a risk,“ he said. “We’re broke in this township.”
“What does it cost us if we don’t do it,” shouted an audience member.
Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, agreed. The state lawmaker is working on legislation that would give the state oversight of recovery houses.
“A court would say our township offers reasonable accommodations,” she said. “It’s your job to take a risk. Look at how many people came out here tonight.”
While residents expressed concern about increased criminal activity near the recovery houses, Johnson said that crime statistics don’t show it.
Among the 112 overdose calls that required police response, only 14 involved recovery houses, he said. Among recovery houses, police responded to an average of two calls a year, compared with 1.6 calls with the rest of the township.
Statistics also show that police responded to more complaints at many of the homes before they were turned into recovery houses, Johnson said.
Another meeting is planned for late January including state, federal lawmakers, town watch and recovery community members along with local municipal officials.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jociavaglia