State Sen. Jim Brochin said this week that he will push for dialogue with Sheppard Pratt Health Systems to try and ease community concerns in the wake of the state's approval this month for a group home in the Ruxton neighborhood.
Brochin, a Democrat who represents Towson in the 42nd District, said now that the ruling has come from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the neighborhood's best option is to work in an effort for harmony.
"I think the best thing they can do now is dialogue," Brochin said. "There are a lot of group homes across the state and across the county, and in my experience, it's the more dialogue, the better."
Sheppard Pratt Health System's application for the "high-end" group home received approval Feb. 2, according to Karen Black, director of public relations for the health office.
The approval comes from the Office of Health Care Quality. In an email to the Towson Times, Nancy Grimm, director of that office, said the home "met the regulatory criteria and under state law, we are required to issue the license."
The home is slated to be a temporary residence for patients who have completed the Retreat program at Sheppard Pratt, a voluntary program for individuals seeking mental health treatment, but who are seeking additional support. The Retreat is not covered by insurance.
While early plans for the group home called for an eight-bed facility, the state approval lists the capacity as six.
"We will be opening the house with up to six residents and at a future point contemplate amending the license to accommodate eight residents," said Bonnie Katz, vice president of business development and support operations for Sheppard Pratt, in an email response to the Towson Times.
Katz said Sheppard Pratt has not established a date for patients to begin residing in the house.
Peggy Squitieri, executive director of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, said this week the association's board had not met since the decision came down and had no comment.
Since the project was announced in April 2011, residents in the Ruxton area have strongly opposed the group home.
Residents put up signs across the neighborhood surrounding the house, which sits on the corner of LaBelle Avenue and Emory Place, urging Sheppard Pratt to stay out of the residential area. The opposition spawned a Facebook page and website for "Neighbors Against Sheppard Pratt," as well as other online protests.
At a meeting hosted by Sheppard Pratt in April, more than 200 residents turned out to express opposition, some citing what they said was a potential impact on the value of their houses, and a fear of setting a precedent for similar facilities in the neighborhood.
At the meeting, residents spoke about Sheppard Pratt's plan being a commercial intrusion in a residential neighborhood and expressed worry about a decline in property values, as well as about the potential for setting a precedent for other similar facilities.
Licensed group homes, however, fall under the federal Fair Housing Act, and at the April meeting, Katz noted that Sheppard Pratt doesn't need neighborhood permission, saying "We have the right to do the residential program we want to."
Brochin said that this past fall, he had requested that the state attorney general's office review the plans and offer an opinion, but said, "it didn't go our way."
He said there had been some question of whether the house, which would also serve out-of-state residents, could be deemed "necessary" if there wasn't a need for it in-state.
Now that the ruling has come, he noted that there has never been an incident with the group homes in his district, and he believes the hospital will work with the neighbors to make sure that track record stands.
"Sheppard Pratt is more than willing to try and assuage their concerns and they have some concerns that are legitimate," such as security, Brochin said.
The senator said he has already received a commitment from Katz and other Sheppard Pratt officials that they will address residents' concerns.
In her response to the Times, Katz said, "We plan to be good neighbors and anticipate that the community will conduct itself in the same fashion."