Battling their demons, county
A drug and alcohol recovery center in Sarasota County sparks a zoning dispute that now has the feds involved.
By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published August 6, 2006
WARM MINERAL SPRINGS - After a lifetime of battling alcoholism, Sharon Mays-Tremain knew she wanted to open a home for other addicts to pass along the lessons she had learned.
She got her opportunity in 1997, when she found four small, stucco houses tucked on a shady cul-de-sac in the tiny retirement town of Warm Mineral Springs.
"It was so pristine," recalled Mays-Tremain. "Very beautiful and peaceful. I just thought to myself, 'You've got to do this.' "
She bought the homes and, over the years, welcomed the broke and the broken. A man who traded his grandfather's new television set for crack on Christmas. Another man who once got so smashed he stood in the street and was hit by a car. A 39-year-old who began drinking at age 8.
But the community wasn't happy with its new neighbors. People complained of noise and feared an increase in crime. They asked Sarasota County to shut the project down.
Now those humble homes are at the center of a $5-million dispute that stretches all the way to Washington, D.C.
Mays-Tremain's dream, and the lives of 27 addicts, hang in the balance.
She named the complex Tammi House after her daughter, killed by a drunken driver at age 18. It is a few miles from Warm Mineral Springs Resort, a natural spring touted as a healing paradise that draws hundreds of tourists in the chilly winter months.
Problems with Sarasota County didn't start until 2004, when a nonprofit corporation called Renaissance Manor stepped in to buy the property from Mays-Tremain, who, by then, was struggling financially.
She had been paying the bills by collecting $175 a week from residents, some of whom qualified for public assistance. But it wasn't enough.
Scott Eller, the owner of Renaissance Manor, immediately launched plans to fix up the place. He bought two empty lots and increased the number of houses from four to six.
The company kept Mays-Tremain on staff, which suited her fine.
Even in her sleep, she worries about the people who come to her for help. At 63, she has the figure of a dancer and the raspy voice of a dedicated smoker. Her hair is platinum blond, and false eyelashes frame her blue eyes. The residents all hear her own story of recovery, and in it, some find hope.
"They're like my children," she said. "Each and every one of them have become my family."
As recently as 2003, Sarasota County officials had decided the Tammi House setup was allowable under the zoning laws governing single-family homes, according to court documents. But the following year, as complaints from neighbors increased, the county changed its position.
The county told Eller it had redefined the individual Tammi House buildings as "community residential homes," which must be at least 1,000 feet apart. Under that restriction, five of the six homes used for Tammi House residents would have to be closed.
State law defines community residential homes as dwellings for "unrelated residents who operate as the functional equivalent of a family," licensed to serve clients of the state's Department of Children and Families.
But Tammi House advocates don't think that definition applies in this case, because the dwellings don't require a license. They operate simply as residences.
Eller, outraged by the county's actions, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tampa, accusing the county of bowing to the unwarranted fears of neighbors.
The county fought back, saying Tammi House residents didn't have standing to sue because they "present a direct threat to themselves, other persons or the property."
That's when the federal government stepped in.
After an investigation, the Justice Department accused Sarasota County of violating the federal Fair Housing Act by discriminating against people with disabilities, in this case, alcoholism.
In June, as part of wider crackdown on discriminatory housing practices, the Justice Department sued, saying the county owed Tammi House millions of dollars after refusing to release grant funds.
It was one of 94 similar lawsuits the department has filed since 2001.
"The former, current and prospective residents of Tammi House are the victims of the county's discriminatory practices and are aggrieved persons," the lawsuit states. "These persons have suffered damage as a result of the county's conduct."
But the dispute wasn't over.* * *
Among the tales of recovery at Tammi House is that of Mays-Tremain.
It begins in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where her husband worked as a musical director at a resort. She met all the rising stars: Don Rickles, Pat Henry and Tom Jones, to name a few.
She quickly got caught up in the party lifestyle, starting her mornings with port wine and drinking late into the night. She hit bottom on Oct. 16, 1979, when she washed down 30 Valium pills with wine and a quart of whiskey.
She spent two months in a residential treatment center in Las Vegas called Reality House and got sober.
Even then, drugs and alcohol continued to torment her. In 1981, her oldest son Todd, who ran with cocaine dealers, died of a gunshot wound. In 1985, police knocked on the door of her Venice home with news of Tammi's car crash.
Through it all, Mays-Tremain fought the urge to drink. After 27 years of sobriety, she credits Reality House with teaching her the lessons she needed to quit drinking.
That's what inspired her to create Tammi House.
"I had been through so much in my life," she said. "I knew I had to use what I had learned to help other people."* * *
For now, Sarasota County officials are remaining tight-lipped about the Justice Department's lawsuit.
"There's two sides to every story," said Jim Ley, the county administrator. "We will get to tell our side when the time is right."
Before filing suit, the Justice Department demanded nearly $5-million in penalties and restitution to Tammi House, Ley confirmed. Federal officials also told Sarasota County to hire a full-time employee to oversee compliance with the Fair Housing Act. That has not happened.
In court papers filed July 24, the county asked U.S. District Judge James Moody for a jury trial.
"Sarasota County has only sought to enforce its legal and legitimate zoning code, which was written in a manner consistent with governing state law," the county's motion read.
Carole Valente, 59, who lives down the street from Tammi House, said she has experienced no problems with residents but she thinks the operators should follow zoning laws.
"They think they can just put those people down here and no one will notice," Valente said. "I'm sorry, but the law is the law."
But Steve Polin, a lawyer for Tammi House, said the county's laws discriminate against people with disabilities. He views the Justice Department's involvement as a significant victory. "You have the top law enforcement agency in the country saying the county violated the Fair Housing Act," Polin said.
Tammi House's lawsuit against the county remains unresolved. It is scheduled for a trial in October, but county lawyers have asked to merge the suit with the Justice Department's.
For now, life continues as usual for the residents of Tammi House. They take turns cooking and cleaning in the communal kitchen and attending 12-step meetings.
"Life happens," Mays-Tremain said, shrugging. "We're still here. People are getting sober. We're doing the best we can."
Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.