For more than 40 years, the Flynn Christian Fellowship Home in Montford has been giving homeless, recovering addicts a second chance at life. In that time, the home has helped hundreds of newly clean and sober folks regain a foothold in society, providing shelter, counseling and support. Most residents, says Director Laurie Tollman, are referred to the home by the Asheville VA Hospital and local mental-health agencies. Trouble is, there are just too many local people who need that second chance -- enough to fill an ever-lengthening waiting list.
Having outgrown the Montford facility, Flynn Christian Fellowship Home officials made an offer to buy a roughly four-acre parcel in Oakley, hoping to sell off the Montford property and build five dwellings in Oakley that could accommodate 26 residents and five staffers. To do that, however, they needed the blessings of the Asheville City Council, as the property is zoned RS-8 (residential, single-family, eight units per acre) and a group home would require RM-16 zoning. So at Council's March 11 formal session, Tollman requested a conditional-use permit that would allow the rezoning.
Conditional-use-permit hearings have long been among the most controversial of Council functions (witness last summer's rancorous, 17-hour hearing that resulted in a permit for a Wal-Mart Supercenter in east Asheville). The March 11 edition proved no different: Scores of Oakley residents packed the chamber, seeking to block the permit, and an equal number of Flynn Home supporters turned out to trumpet the agency's success rate and vital role in the community. The stakes were further raised when it was announced at the start of the hearing that project opponents had filed a valid protest petition. Under state law, that meant it would take a "super majority" (in this case, a vote of 6-1 or better) for Council to approve the measure.
But the Flynn folks came armed as well, having hired former Chief City Planner Gerald Green. Green, who recently left public employ to strike out on his own as a consultant, told Council that he'd lived up the street from the Flynn Home for 12 years and considered them to be good neighbors. His comments amounted to a pre-emptive strike against Oakley residents' concerns about safety. "When I moved to Montford, the Flynn Home stood out -- not because of who lived there, but because it was so well-maintained," noted Green, adding: "They are not evil people. They are people who've made a wrong choice in life and realize it. All they're asking for is a second chance."
Green also pointed out that the conditional-use permit would limit the development of the property to five dwellings housing "31 people on over three acres of land -- far less than what the current zoning would allow."
Tollman emphasized that historically, there's never been a problem with neighbors of the Montford facility. She also explained that the home enforces strict behavior policies and thoroughly screens all prospective residents. "We do not admit sex or violent offenders, or those with severe mental illness," she said. Additionally, Tollman noted that the Flynn Home enforces a strict curfew for residents, employs random drug tests, and maintains on-site staffing 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure the safety of both neighbors and residents. "Like everyone, we don't know if our neighbors are doing drugs or alcohol in their homes," said Tollman, adding that Flynn's strict supervision and drug testing offer proof that the home's residents aren't.
Fear vs. facts
When it was Oakley residents' turn at the lectern, they wasted little time in expressing their displeasure. While some argued against siting a group home in a single-family neighborhood, many simply attacked the Flynn Home residents. Oakley resident Dale Rhew chose his words carefully, saying: "This rezoning will bring unwanted safety concerns. ... I know all the residents might be perfect angels right now, but what about the ones coming next year?"
Max Wilson, however, was anything but subtle. Noting that he'd recently moved from Biltmore Forest and had spent $1 million on a piece of property and homes for himself and his children in Oakley, Wilson said he would never have spent the money had he known that "this junk was coming in." Initially, it wasn't clear whether he was referring to the style of dwellings planned by Flynn or to the residents themselves, but Wilson soon removed any doubt about what "junk" he was talking about. Other, similar group homes in Asheville, he noted, are "filled with drunks and dope heads," adding: "Please don't put this junk off on us. Let us live in peace."
Other Oakley residents made veiled references to "these people," harkening back to Asheville's segregated past -- only this time, the issue was sobriety, not skin color.
Recovering addict Steve Greer also took his turn at the lectern. Speaking after Wilson, Greer introduced himself sheepishly as "a piece of junk that lives at the Flynn Home." Regaining his confidence, however, Greer took issue with a prior speaker's comment that the home should be sited "out in the country."
"We don't belong out in the country," retorted Greer. "We're not lepers -- nor are we farmers. We're people recovering from an illness."
Local activist Mickey Mahaffey took the mike soon thereafter, taking the mayor and City Council to task for allowing such "vile, vilifying and disparaging remarks" about the Flynn residents. "And you won't allow cussing but you'll allow this?" Mahaffey added disdainfully.
Also speaking in support of the group home was former Flynn resident John Michael Thompson. Describing himself as a former addict who's stayed sober for two years, Thompson recalled Tollman's comment that many of the home's referrals come from the VA Hospital. "I'm one of those vets," he said. "I served my country for 26 years in the Army and the National Guard. The Flynn Home pretty much saved my life."
Ironically, another veteran -- invited by Council member Joe Dunn -- had kicked off the evening's proceedings, leading those in attendance in the pledge of allegiance. It was the second consecutive Council meeting at which a military veteran had led the pledge -- apparently part of Dunn's efforts to recognize veterans in the wake of the recent Support our Soldiers rally.
But though Dunn grinned like a proud papa at the pledge-leading vet, he shook his head slowly and grimaced when Thompson spoke of addiction to both drugs and country. And when it came time for Council to vote on the matter, Dunn was the first to show where his allegiance lay.
Wearing a hangdog look, Dunn addressed the audience, declaring: "We cannot base this decision on who is going to occupy this property. Merit and appropriateness is what I'm going by. You're gonna see bad behavior anywhere you live, so I don't think [the safety] argument holds water. Just to allow this particular project does bother me. We have other areas of the city that can accommodate this kind of development. I hate to bring this up, but I'm going to -- back when the county purchased the jail, the City Council attempted to rezone it to stop that development from happening. If you listen to the city, [they said], 'We're worried about our property values,' and they rezoned it. Now we're gonna have a reverse NIMBYism. We're gonna go ahead and rezone a neighborhood for RM-16. To me, that's inconsistent. I think that consistency has to have merit. I don't think this zoning is consistent.
"To plop a RM-16 down right in the middle of the neighborhood does bother me. I don't think it's smart growth, too. Smart growth is supposed to be as much density as we can accommodate in a given area. For instance -- you can do the math -- if you take 3.88 acres and multiply it by 16 and you have two or three people per house, well that's 192 people that can live on this property, based on just rough calculations, compared to 31. ... That's not smart growth. ...
"I think that as a Council, we have to be consistent. The City Council tries to be consistent; past Councils weren't ... when they rezoned to keep the jail out. If they're gonna rezone to keep a halfway house in -- I wish they'd be a little more consistent. So for that reason, and that reason alone -- inconsistency of doing it in one little area of the city when we have a lot of other areas -- bothers me. And for that reason, I'm not going to support this."
Dunn's remarks were followed immediately by those of Council member Carl Mumpower, whose demeanor also reflected the gravity of the situation. He paused, blinked and then said: "I think that the arguments on safety concerns and character issues [and] injuring the value are more persuasive than the arguments against those issues. I'm a psychologist. I have patients who have lived in this program and I know they do good work, but that's not the basis upon which I should make my vote."
It soon became apparent that the proposal had just sustained a fatal blow.
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy quickly went on the offensive, however. She challenged Dunn's rationale, noting that the Flynn Home had to request RM-16 zoning, as it's the only zoning designation that allows such facilities. "It's not their fault they have to go RM-16; it's ours," she reasoned, adding, "The fault is not with the petitioner, it is in our system."
Both Mayor Charles Worley and Council member Holly Jones voiced strong support for the measure, with Jones pointing out that the medical community recognizes addiction as a disease and that the city could be held in violation of the Fair Housing Act if someone challenged the ruling, charging discrimination. Worley, for his part, commented that he "tends to be factually oriented" -- perhaps a jab at the noticeable lack of any sort of supporting evidence offered by the project's opponents to substantiate their fears about property values and neighborhood safety.
Council member Jim Ellis offered unconditional support, commenting, "I do not feel this will hurt your property values or your safety." Council member Brian Peterson, a staunch supporter of neighborhood rights, was noticeably silent on the matter during Council's discussion. Nonetheless, he uncharacteristically voted to approve the proposal.
In the end, the 5-2 vote appeared to reflect the majority position -- but on this night, the majority would not rule.