Baltimore County

Ruxton neighbors still oppose Sheppard Pratt plans

Weeks of community meetings and discussions with Sheppard Pratt Health System officials have done little to ease the minds of neighbors to a mental health outpatient facility slated to open in Ruxton this fall.

That much is clear from the red and white "No Retreat" signs dotting nearly every lawn on quiet, tree-lined LaBelle Avenue.

But until the hospital applies for a license to run the group home, residents say they are in wait-and-see mode.

"It's hard to say what we're going to do until we've seen their application and if they get one. The licensing folks may say they don't qualify," said Tom Costello, director of No Retreat Inc., a group that formed to oppose Sheppard Pratt's plan.

"We certainly think they shouldn't qualify," Costello said. "They are trying to run a business in the middle of this neighborhood."

Outcry has been strong since the hospital announced plans in mid-April to convert a six-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot house into a facility for wealthy patients who are transitioning from The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, a private mental-health care facility where rates start at $2,000 per day.

Some patients might also suffer from substance abuse problems, according to hospital officials, who said they intend for the house to be drug- and alcohol-free. Up to eight individuals at a time would live in the house, for an average of six months.

Ruxton residents have been leaning on lawmakers and each other to thwart the plans. Hospital officials said they have held five meetings with community members since April.

Dueling letters to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene help to illustrate the conflict.

An attorney representing some of the neighbors wrote in mid-May that the facility — which residents have derisively called "Hotel LaBelle" — would serve a primarily out-of-state clientele that is not substantially impaired, resulting in great profit to the nonprofit.

"The proposed use does not qualify as a small private group home simply because Sheppard Pratt asserts it does," attorney Richard C. Burch wrote.

Attorneys for Sheppard Pratt countered about a month later with a missive saying that the opponents' arguments "rest on misstatments of the facts and misreadings of the law, and ignore the principle that lies at the heart of the [Fair Housing Act]: The law may not impose discriminatory burdens on persons with disabilities when choosing where to live."

"The amount that Sheppard Pratt charges for its services is irrelevant," attorneys James A. Dunbar and Andrew D. Levy wrote. "In short, Sheppard Pratt has made every effort to constructively communicate with the Objectors and address their concerns — but they seem to have shut their ears."

Hospital officials' refusal to issue firm guarantees against on-site parking expansion, building modifications, purchasing other homes in the community or transferring ownership of the home has emerged as a major point of contention.

Sheppard Pratt officials maintain that doing so could compromise other group homes and protections offered by fair housing laws.

"I think people are gradually understanding more about the context," said Bonnie Katz, vice president for business development and support operations at Sheppard Pratt. As we've said all along, once there are folks living in the house, we can deal with any questions that arise."

Neighbor Megan Wahler walks the narrow streets around the house on La Belle and points out other homes, describing neighbors' renovation projects with pride, ticking off whose kids live where, and discussing the recent death of another family's pet dog.

She said most neighbors are concerned about the group home's transitional nature, which goes against their idea of how similar facilities traditionally operate — as long-term care facilities for those with meager resources.

"We understand why there is a law," she said. "We just don't think it's being used appropriately."

The Neighbors Against Sheppard Pratt page on Facebook now includes YouTube videos mocking the health care system's proposal and tactics.

Kenneth Wahler, Megan's husband, contends the hospital is using fair housing laws to bully neighbors.

"Even if they have the shield of the law," he said, "there should be some real conversation. That's the way neighbors are supposed to work together."