Friday, June 26, 2009 | 11:59 a.m.
The operators of a group home in Henderson’s Serene Country Estates Neighborhood that last year housed homeless individuals were denied a use permit for an elderly group home at the same residence Thursday night.
In a unanimous vote, the Henderson Planning Commission agreed with neighborhood residents who said an existing group home for the elderly that is 200 feet away from the home that requested permitting is sufficient to serve the community’s needs.
While group homes are generally considered a permitted use in residential neighborhoods and in most cases do not require a public hearing, state law requires close scrutiny and a public hearing for any proposed home that would be within 1,500 feet of another one.
The home’s operators said they plan to appeal the decision to the City Council.
Last year’s discovery that the home, Sweet Home Belmont, was housing as many as eight indigent individuals at once sparked outrage amongst neighbors, who said the home’s residents were confrontational and had threatened them.
Sweet Home Belmont was one of two homes in the neighborhood to be engaged in the practice of housing homeless people.
Terry Waihenya said she and her Sweet Home Belmont co-owner Francis Kariuki thought they would be helping Clark County Social Services by taking in the indigent residents, and mistakenly assumed that the people they took in would be cleared through a background check. She said she was surprised to learn of the problems between her residents and her neighbors.
“We were convinced we could assist them,” she said. “We really thought it was a genuine kind of assistance we were going to offer them, but it turned out to be very nasty.”
The neighbors’ complaints prompted the city to introduce a bill that would reduce the number of unrelated people allowed to live in a single-family home from 10 to four, but the bill was tabled in March and hasn’t resurfaced.
Last September, Kariuki and Waihenya decided instead to begin a group home for the elderly. They were licensed by the state, purchased a $2 million insurance policy and had what they thought were all the necessary city permits.
City planners on Thursday night, however, said they misunderstood the nature of the business and mistakenly issued the wrong type of permit. The mistake surfaced earlier this year when a neighbor’s complaint about the elderly group home prompted a business license investigation that revealed the error and required Kariuki and Waihenya to re-submit their application and go through a public hearing.
Principal Planner Michael Tassi said city staff did not know that it would be a group home for the elderly, who may require medical care.
At Thursday’s hearing, several Serene Country Estates residents spoke against the request, questioning everything from Kariuki and Waihenya’s qualifications to the impact the home would have on property values.
One resident, Katherine Hawkins, said she worried about the number of emergency calls that two homes could generate.
“We are a very quiet residential neighborhood,” she said. “We do not want a slough of emergency calls going through our area.”
Resident Linda Neilson, who said her husband was threatened by one of the home’s indigent residents, said she worries about lingering safety issues.
“They housed people in there that were undesirable -- that have criminal records,” she said. “They know that house well -- how do we know they don’t still have access and won’t come back?”
Waihenya disputed all the allegations made, saying the home has had one emergency call in more than one year of operation. The home is level two care, she said, meaning that residents are in good general health and able to do most things for themselves, but may need the aid of a walker or wheelchair to get around.
She dismissed allegations that the group home would lower property values. The residence operated as a group home for 12 years under different management before the current owner (who leases the home to Waihenya and Kariuki) bought it, and there were no reports of problems or declining property values during that time, Waihenya said.
“It’s not true,” Waihenya said of the concern over declining property values. “These kinds of group homes operate very quietly. It’s just like a family. There are no signs, no advertising.”