Budget approval, stormwater maintenance guidelines and streetlight fees took a backseat at the Safety Harbor City Commission meeting Wednesday night, as much of the attention was focused on an issue affecting the Harbor Woods Village subdivision.
Following a year and a half of sometimes heated debates, the commission approved a settlement between the city of Safety Harbor and Bonnie Jo Hill and her TBGH LLC. that not only allows Hill to put a group home in the subdivision, but requires the city to pay Hill a sum of $400,000.
The decision was met with outrage by residents of the community off of Enterprise Road.
"I'm just astounded that the city would roll over to what amounts to blatant extortion," Harbor Woods Village resident Dr. Dale Caldwell said. "We have numerous (subdivisions) nearby, and she could not find any other place?
"Perhaps I should open a bed and breakfast and then threaten to sue the city if I don't get my approval."
"I'm very concerned about how Safety Harbor's reputation is going down the toilet because you're willing to roll over on state law," Laurie Champa added. "You have $400,000 to pay them off not to sue you ... and my home is falling into Booker Creek!"
The anger stems from Hill's decision to file a discrimination complaint against the city for denying her permission to operate the group home at 59 Harbor Woods Circle last spring.
The commission decided that the property was too close to an existing assisted living facility, Melody Place; therefore Hill's group home would be a violation of a state law that says such facilities may not operate within 1,000 feet of each other.
But Hill filed a housing discrimination complaint in September 2011, "alleging that the City's actions and ordinances discriminated against Claimants on the basis of handicap," according to the settlement agreement.
That filing led the city to reconsider its decision, which in turn led to the settlement that was agreed upon by a 4-1 vote by the commission Wednesday night.
"We feel like we've been let down by the city commission," said David Conkle, a disabled vet who lives around the corner from the house. "By clustering these (group) homes, you affect the property values of the surrounding homes."
The owner of Melody Place had a different take on why the group home should not be allowed at 59 Harbor Woods Circle.
"This is not something you can put in a place like that," Kamran Rouhani said later. "She needs about four acres for what she's doing. She's going to be sardining these guys in there."
"We're not opposing any federal law," he added. "We're just saying this place that you chose for what you want to do is inappropriate."
Hill's original proposal called for a home for six men between the ages of 17 to 24 with learning disabilities, according to reports.
City Attorney Alan Zimmet said the city "is not paying one dime towards this settlement" — the money will be paid by the city's insurance company.
"This type of home ... has protections ... under federal statutes," Zimmet explained. "A city like Safety Harbor is not allowed to deny them a group home because it's too close to another group home. That's federal law."