Ruxton residents gearing up for fight over rehab home

Ruxton residents might not have the law on their side in trying to thwart plans for a high-end mental health rehabilitation center in their neighborhood, but that won't stop them from putting up a fight.

Though Sheppard Pratt Medical Systems' proposal is protected by federal and state housing laws, according to experts, residents are exploring other options to halt the Towson-based hospital's effort to convert a six-bedroom house on Labelle Avenue into a facility for patients undergoing treatment for issues such as depression and anxiety.

With social media organizing efforts under way, residents are also trying to rally support from elected officials while continuing to send emails and letters to the hospital. The strategy — one resident described it as "visible objection" — includes posting lawn signs throughout the neighborhood.

"We think that legally, Sheppard Pratt may have the right to do what they're doing," said Kathy Mountcastle, president of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association. "But I still think it's a community issue, and community input should count."

Members of the community are in an uproar over the plan, arguing that it is an unacceptable fit for the affluent, close-knit neighborhood, and will lower property values, exacerbate parking problems and possibly endanger their children.

Some patients may 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 would live in the house at a time, on average for six months.

The plan should be subject to local ordinances on boardinghouses, Mountcastle said Thursday. The association recently launched a successful zoning appeal through Baltimore County that prevented the conversion of a large historic home into a boardinghouse.

"Having eight unrelated individuals in a single-family home in a family-oriented neighborhood, whether they are Towson students, Sheppard Pratt patients or anyone else, should have to go through normal zoning procedures," Mountcastle said. "This is not against Sheppard Pratt. We have great respect for the work done at Sheppard Pratt. We just believe this is an inappropriate use of a single-family residence in a densely populated neighborhood."

Sheppard Pratt officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Group homes for juvenile offenders or individuals with substance abuse problems or mental disorders have traditionally been placed in low-income areas — a strategy that has come under fire by public officials, residents and mental health advocates.

"It's always been seen as a detriment, frankly — putting them in areas that were dangerous, didn't have access to public transportation, areas that may impede rather than enhance recovery," said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Placing such facilities in more affluent areas is becoming more common, and the reaction of communities like Ruxton is not uncommon, he said.

Honberg suggested that group home operators invite residents to meet the individuals who will live in the facility, reassure them that they intend to be good neighbors, and answer questions they may have about patients activities' during the day and whether they actively use drugs or alcohol.

"It's important to meet the existing residents halfway," he said, "but I don't think there's an obligation to provide too much information. We don't subject everyone who wants to live in the neighborhood to a litmus test or a background check. I think there's a fine line."

Legal experts said the community will likely seek to challenge zoning ordinances or add restrictions, and go after Sheppard Pratt's funding. But arguing that the facility shouldn't be there because they don't want it won't get them very far, said Eve Hill, a prominent disability-rights attorney in Baltimore.

"The community decision does not overrule the rights of the minority," she said.

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