By now, most north Baltimore residents know the basic facts about the controversial group home that Sheppard Pratt Health System has purchased on LaBelle Avenue, a street of small homes and cottages in Ruxton. How developer Jim Carroll purchased, in foreclosure, the shell of an unfinished house to build his 5,000 square foot “dream home.” How some neighbors were concerned about the size of the building, but listened to his genial reassurances. And how a very short time later, when he realized that his children were grown and that a six-bedroom home with a large parking pad on a half-acre behind the Graul’s dumpsters might not be where he wanted to spend the rest of his life, he put it on the market. Luckily, (arched eyebrow) Sheppard Pratt was there with an offer of $1.4 million for a house that needed no work at all to become a short-term home for wealthy people recovering from depression, anxiety, and/or addiction. This series of events has many La Belle Avenue and other Ruxton residents feeling duped, and wondering about the possibility of a prior agreement between the former homeowner and venerable mental health hospital.
Recently, Baltimore Fishbowl talked with neighbors who had toured the Carroll house before building was finished. Naturally, no one wants to be named, but they did add a little fuel to the fire of speculation. “I’m not a builder, but even I could see that the interior was very cheaply constructed. I was surprised that Jim didn’t have higher standards for his own house,” said one neighbor. Another neighbor “thought it was weird that every bedroom had its own bath attached” and that the house had an industrial grade sprinkler system. Finally, we heard that “he (Mr. Carroll) has flipped houses in the past.”
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. If Mr. Carroll had planned all along to offload the house to Sheppard Pratt, it would naturally imply that the two parties had had some initial discussion prior to the building. But hospital spokesperson Bonnie Katz firmly denies this, and Jim Carroll is not talking. And another Sheppard Pratt staff member and Ruxton resident also seems doubtful, saying that “it’s just not the way the hospital operates” — that they are neither as far-sighted nor organized as this kind of planning would indicate.
Where Sheppard Pratt has unquestionably shown foresight is in realizing the financial possibilities of the home. With eight people (the maximum number of patients in residence) paying approximately $600 per night, the home could gross Sheppard Pratt nearly $150,000 a month. In the words of a Neighbors Against Sheppard Pratt Facebook post: “Would you buy a $1.5 million home if you could earn a profit in 11 months?”
From the point of view of residents, this is doubly irritating. Not only did a developer flip a house under their very noses, not only will Sheppard Pratt be running a hugely profitable ‘not-for-profit’ facility on their street, but they will be paying the price in terms of increased traffic, potential drop in home values and, most importantly from a neighborhood point-of view, an ever-changing roster of strangers on the block. “Kids run around this street on their own,” a resident says. “I don’t want to lose that.”
Widespread accusations of NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard) ring a little false. Do people in other, less affluent communities welcome these type of residences with open arms? Not really, according to a local developer who prefers not to be named. “No one really wants them, but it’s usually a matter of how savvy the community is. By that I mean [it’s how] organized [they are], and how hard they are willing to fight that decides the outcome” (i.e., whether or not the facility is allowed).
Neighborhoods are occasionally successful in fighting off group houses or assisted living facilities — sometimes through sheer orneriness, when the developer just decides to go away in the face of hostility; more often through appealing to local zoning rulings. In 1997 in neighboring Roland Park, the Civic League successfully fought the development of an assisted living facility at 4803 Roland Avenue by lobbying against the requisite Baltimore City zoning variance. In another case in 2009, the city ruled against a zoning change that would have allowed the Baltimore Country Club to sell land to the Keswick Group to build a large assisted living facility. But for the Sheppard Pratt home in Ruxton, a zoning variance is not needed because the building falls within the “single family residence” designation. According to County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who represents Ruxton, “there is nothing in county law to keep the hospital from opening a group home in the neighborhood.”
At an angry and well-publicized community meeting on April 27th, Marion Knott, a Ruxton community leader and a co-director of No Retreat, the Ruxton-based organization fighting the group home, stated that “the community intends to fight this vigorously.” On the Dan Rodricks radio show on WYPR recently, Tom Costello, lawyer and co-director of No Retreat, outlined the primary legal objections:
First is the short-term, transient nature of the home — an argument that focuses on the intention of the Federal Fair Housing Act and the definition of “group home.” Second is the fact that the home will be run for profit, albeit by a non-profit (Sheppard Pratt). As a commercial enterprise, Costello believes that the home does violate land-use and zoning restrictions. “For-profit activity is not protected by the act, and should not supersede local zoning laws.” The first step, according to Mr. Costello, will be to challenge the licensing process, which will begin in a few months.
So far, the outward signs that the battle continues are a plastic bag full of feces thrown onto the porch of LaBelle Avenue , a flurry of anti-retreat signs, and a stream of Facebook posts on the Neighbors Against Sheppard Pratt website — including an interesting suggestion that neighbors combine assets and buy the property away from the hospital. Behind the scenes, Ms. Knott, Mr. Costello and other members of the community are working within the system to deter Sheppard Pratt from its plan to operate the home. And still other — perhaps most other — Ruxton residents are resigned or nonplussed, ready to let it go and hope for the best. “I assume it’s going to be there,” one said. “And I assume it’s going to be fine.”