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Parkersburg City Council to mull zoning for substance abuse treatment centers

Mayor, council president address prayer ruling

PARKERSBURG — At its first meeting since a federal judge issued an injunction prohibiting members from reciting the Lord’s prayer just prior to gaveling into session, Parkersburg City Council will consider a pair of ordinances limiting where substance abuse treatment facilities and group recovery homes can locate.

Council meets at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in its chambers on the second floor of the Municipal Building. An Urban Renewal Authority meeting will follow.

Council last year approved a moratorium on the establishment of any new residential substance abuse treatment facilities — from large rehab centers to group sober-living homes — until June 30, 2022. One reason, officials said, was to give the West Virginia Legislature a chance to enact laws at the state level to deal with the proliferation of such facilities, which generally are exempt from local and state zoning regulations because addiction is classified as a disability.

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce said Friday that nothing was passed by the Legislature in that regard, so the administration has proposed two ordinances aimed at providing “some reasonable accommodations for both the licensed treatment facilities and the residential group homes” while protecting neighborhoods and adjoining property owners.

One would prohibit residential substance abuse treatment facilities from being within 250 feet of a residential district, within 500 feet of a public or parochial school and 1,000 feet of an existing treatment facility.

The one governing group homes applies to those serving developmentally or behaviorally disabled people. It says the homes cannot be located less than 1,500 feet from another group home; limits occupancy to 12 residents or one per every 200 square feet, whichever is less; and prohibits external or structural alterations that would change the residential character of the building, such as garage and driveway expansions. The city’s off-street parking regulations must be followed, no tenant could constitute a substantial health, safety or property damage risk and all administrative activities shall serve only the residents of that home.

Joyce said the goal is to prevent group homes from “taking over a neighborhood,” while also providing safe conditions for group home residents.

Facilities interested in being an asset to a neighborhood instead of a liability “should not have any issues with the standards we have put in place with that ordinance,” he said. “(They’re) not much different than what we would expect from any property owner.”

Group homes must also comply with all state licensing requirements and the National Association of Recovery Residences standards and code of ethics. Some existing facilities have not done that, Joyce said. It was not immediately clear whether the ordinances, if passed, would apply to existing facilities or only new ones.

The Lord’s prayer has been said prior to the official start of council meetings for several years after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged the practice of council members leading it at the start of the session. But U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. this week ruled the prayer practice was impermissible because it was a distinctly Christian prayer offered by elected officials and there was an implicit and sometimes express invitation for audience members to join them.

Council President Zach Stanley said he’s been in communication with other council members to determine what they will do going forward, both in terms of future meetings and any potential appeal of the ruling.

“I want to get a gauge on what each individual council member thinks,” he said.

Whatever decision is made, Stanley said council will follow the law, which includes the judge’s ruling.

“Council makes laws, and we expect others to abide by them,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”

Joyce said the judge’s order is very clear, but he’s disappointed in it.

“Christianity has been under attack in the United States for a long time, and I think this is just another example of people using the law to fit their narrative,” he said.

Joyce said he supports religious freedom, but described the lawsuit as “highly politically motivated from what I will call left-leaning” individuals.

“I think a lot of this was payback for the failure of the nondiscrimination ordinance,” he said, referring to the 2017 municipal legislation that would have prohibited discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of a variety of factors, including veteran status, genetic information, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The lawsuit was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of local residents Daryl Cobranchi and Eric Engle, both of whom identify as atheists and said they felt negatively singled out for not participating in the prayer.

Engle said there were many factors that motivated the lawsuit, including a 2017 decision by the 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals that a similar practice by a county commission in North Carolina was unconstitutional and which was not taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We had standing, and we both had experienced discriminatory acts,” Engle said.

“This is not about political party affiliation or ideology in any way shape or form,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the nondiscrimination ordinance.

He called Joyce’s characterization of the lawsuit “completely unfair but not unexpected.”

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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Also on Tuesday’s Agenda

* The final reading of an ordinance enacting 50-cents-an-hour pay increases for civilian employees who have worked for the city for 10, 15 and 20 years, matching similar incentives passed last year for police and firefighters.

* The final reading of an ordinance granting the citywide 3.2 percent pay increase for police and firefighters, whose pay must be set by ordinance.

* Mayor Tom Joyce’s appointments of Kate Marlow to the Municipal Planning Commission and Will Starcher to the Avery Street Architectural Review Board.

* A resolution allocating $10,000 to the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation toward a feasibility study for work at the Sumner School facility.

* A resolution renaming the area where veterans monuments stand at City Park as Veterans Memorial Plaza.

* After the meeting, council will meet as the Urban Renewal Authority to consider three applications to donate property and one application to sell property at fair market value, as well as hear a presentation on marketing URA-owned property.

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