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A proposal with too many questions

A health aide wants to use her house for patients, but neighbors worry the home will change the community and the county agrees.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Patricia Law wants to use this house in Dunnellon as an adult living center for three patients.
DUNNELLON -- Weldon "Andy" Anderson cared for his wife, Wilma, for six years after a stroke paralyzed her right side and left her unable to talk. But as age caught up to the World War II Army veteran, he could no longer care for her alone.

So the couple opened their house in the late 1980s to Patricia Law, a certified home health aide who provided around-the-clock care.

Law helped with everything -- bathing, cooking, housekeeping, trips to the doctor's office and the store -- that Mrs. Anderson could not do for herself.

After six years of Law's care, Mrs. Anderson died in January 1996 at age 78. Her 81-year-old husband passed away that April after battling pancreatic cancer. Law said the couple were unable to pay her much, so they left her their modest home at 4036 E Seminole Lane.

In the years since, the house has been used by friends while Law cared for other patients in other homes.

Then Law came up with a plan for the house: She would share it with three new patients who, like the Andersons, need live-in care but don't want to go to an assisted living facility.

She never imagined the neighbors and the county would block it.

"I have this home with all this space, and I just thought I could help a few more people," said Law, who has been a home health aide for 18 years.

But the residents of this laid-back community off County Road 39 a mile west of State Road 200 fear an "adult living facility" would change their neighborhood.

Children play outside. Teens roam the woods in all-terrain vehicles. Families enjoy outdoor barbecues. Neighbors can hear each other's televisions and radios down the street, and nobody minds.

If the old folks move in, however, these residents fear their noisy activities will be shushed.

"I have nothing against (Law)," said Vickie Brantley, who has lived on E Seminole Lane for 23 years. "It's just that this is a residential community with lots of kids. We want our kids free to be kids, to ride their bikes and play with their dogs."

Residents also say a neighborhood is no place for a commercial venture.

Their concerns swayed the county's Planning and Development Review Board, which voted 4-3 last Thursday to deny Law's plans.

"It's not compatible," board chairman Raymond Hughes said. "Maybe there is a need for this, but maybe not in this particular neighborhood."

End of story? More like the beginning of it.

Law said she will appeal the planning board's decision because she believes it sets a troubling precedent: The county can deny elderly residents the choice of living in a neighborhood, with an aide and a few other patients, instead of a larger assisted living facility.

She has 30 days to challenge the planning board's decision. William B. Eppley, a Brooksville attorney, would sit as the hearing officer and decide whether the ruling was justified.

"I just don't see how anyone with any compassion can tell a senior citizen they don't have the right to live in a residential area," Law said.

Meanwhile, her would-be neighbors are digging in their heels, ready to protect their community from a facility they don't want.

"It's like taking away the things people like to do in life, the good things," said William Stuckey, who lives next door. "We just figure our rights would be taken away."

A permanent change

Citrus County already has homes like the one Law proposed, although the facilities are not obvious to anyone passing by.

Home health aides say that's the idea.

"It's just like a home," said Barbara Baker, who cared for three patients in her Apache Shores home in the late 1980s. "They have their own room. Although they have restricted diets, they have their favorite foods, all those types of things that make living worthwhile. It makes it a home for them instead of a room or just existing someplace."

Did her neighbors mind?

"We didn't have any problem," Baker said. "We told people up front that I had a couple of ladies I took care of, and they didn't care."

At that time, Baker said, she did not need county approval. But under the Land Development Code adopted in 1990, anyone who wants to care for several unrelated people in their home needs county permission for that "conditional use" of the property.

The county wants to review each facility to make sure it will be compatible with the area, said Community Development Director Chuck Dixon.

"The code seeks to encourage these facilities in residential areas, where they can be accommodated, because that's a residential type of use," Dixon said. "It's most appropriate for someone who needs that type of care to be located in a friendly environment, not a commercial environment or an institutional environment."

In the case of Law's proposed facility on E Seminole Lane, county planner Margaret Beake recommended approval with 12 conditions. Law would have to make about $20,000 in renovations, including new walls connecting the three-bedroom home to a small workshop that would become her quarters.

The facility also would have to obtain a state license for "adult family care," among other conditions.

"I feel this is a definite need in this community, and there are probably more of them than you are aware of," said planning board member James Kellner, who supported the request.

But other board members worried the home could someday become something else. A conditional use is attached to the property, not the owner, so the activity is still allowed if the land changes hands.

Under the conditional use Law requested, Dixon said, the only activity would be the adult living facility, regardless of whether it was owned by Law or someone else. If the owner stopped operating the facility for six months, he said, the conditional use would expire.

Board members Marion Knudsen and Miles Blodgett still feared it could turn into something else under a future owner.

"This goes with the land forever," Blodgett said.

Home life

Neighbors had a similar fear: Could an "adult living facility" be open to any adult?

"The way I was told, it was going to be (for) people from halfway houses," said Kimberly Mumford, who lives two doors down.

Not so, Law said. By statute, the required state license would limit the facility to provide personal care for people "who by reason of illness, physical infirmity or advanced age require such services."

Medical care would be provided by a nurse who makes house calls.

Law also said the neighbors wouldn't see any additional traffic if patients lived there. The house is on the corner of County Road 39, so anyone visiting would turn into the home without passing any of the neighbors, she said.

"It's a shame to say it," Law added, "but once a family member is put somewhere like that, you don't get a lot of visitors."

Although in-home care is more expensive -- about $7,000 a month, compared to local assisted living facilities that cost between $1,500 and $2,500 a month, and nursing homes that run between $3,500 and $5,000 a month -- Law said the personal attention and home environment are important to her patients.

For the past two years she has helped care for two brothers in Beverly Hills. Cornelius Rowehl, who turns 82 next week, has Parkinson's disease. His brother Bert, 78, is active but unable to fully care for him.

The Rowehl brothers simply want to live at home, and they say thanks to Law's care, they can.

"I can't stay here by myself," Cornelius Rowehl said. "I had to go to the hospital in December and she went with me and stayed with me, something no one else would do for me."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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