Review board rejects group home request
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001
LECANTO -- Many neighbors praised Frank and Tina Bower for providing a home for children whose parents have checked into live-in treatment programs.
They just don't think it should be in their southwestern Citrus Hills neighborhood, off State Road 44 about two miles east of County Road 491.
At Thursday's county planning board meeting, those neighbors said their quiet, deed-restricted community is no place for a house crammed with the five-member Bower family, their 14 guests and all of the noise and traffic they generate.
"(The Bowers') beliefs I admire. Everybody wants to help somebody else," resident Robert Bryner said. "But I don't believe a single-family residential area is a proper place for a group home."
Neither did the Planning and Development Review Board, which voted 5-0 to deny the Bowers' request for a conditional use permit that would make their five-bedroom house at 1402 W Mineral Court into an official group home.
"It's just not compatible with the surrounding area," board chairman Ray Hughes said, as the crowd of nearly 50 residents applauded.
Frank Bower disagreed, saying he has opened his home to children and some adults for more than five years now with few neighbors noticing and no formal complaints. Bower said he plans to appeal the planning board's decision to a state hearing officer.
"If God is for me, who can be against me?" he said after the meeting, quoting a familiar passage from one of Saint Paul's epistles.
If Bower files his appeal within the next 30 days, the state Department of Administrative Hearings would send an officer to hear arguments from both sides, Assistant County Attorney Carl Kern said.
The officer could either uphold the planning board's decision or require a new planning board hearing if he believes a procedural error was made, Kern said. But the hearing officer cannot simply reverse the planning board's decision, he said.
Bower said he does not see his house as a "group home," defined in state statutes as a supervised "family living" facility with four to 15 residents. His home is not open to strangers, he said, but to people affiliated with the Jesus Is Ministries of Inglis.
While adults participate in the Inglis ministry's treatment programs for substance abuse or other problems, their children and spouses stay in Bower's home.
Occasionally, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office or the Department of Children and Families brings Bower a child who needs a bed until a foster home or a relative can take the child, he added.
"I never considered ourselves a group home," Bower said. "I'm only (applying for the conditional use permit) to try to comply with the county."
The county believes Bower's home is a group home, a use that requires the county's approval, Community Development Director Chuck Dixon said.
Now that the planning board has denied Bower's request, he could face action from the county's code enforcement board if he continues to operate a group home, although the county likely would hold off on any enforcement measures while an appeal of the decision is pending, Dixon said.
Among the 16 residents who spoke out against Bower's application, several argued that Bower is also violating the community's deed restrictions. For instance, garages should not be converted into habitable rooms, but Bower turned his into two bedrooms, said Citrus Hills Property Owners Association president Bob Collins. "We all have to live in these guidelines, and I certainly expect he will have to as well," Collins said.
Neighbors have already talked about raising a legal defense fund to sue Bower for violating the deed restrictions.
Other residents expressed safety concerns about living so close to a group of transient residents, some of them young men.
"You have to be afraid when you have daughters of what is running around the neighborhood," said Laura Arnold-Morrow, who lives next door to Bower with her two daughters, ages 11 and 17.
"I don't want a Jim Jones place. I don't want a Waco," added Mike Reaboi, comparing Bower's ministry to two deadly religious cults. "I want a quiet community."
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