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Cornelius, Luke-Dorf trade jabs during appeal hearing

City will wait until May 20 to decide whether permit for controversial group home should have been revoked

Anybody who waited through a three-hour meeting of the Cornelius Planning Commission Tuesday night for a decision on the Connell House was sorely disappointed.

The commission won't make a determination about the secure residential treatment facility's future until May.

But those looking for fireworks were in for a treat as a detailed conversation about land use broke into a boisterous back-and-forth between an engaged commission and the group home's lawyer.

City development staff revoked the conditional use permit for the controversial group home on Jan. 11, a few weeks after the house made news when Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon distributed fliers to 1,300 Cornelius residents telling them the house harbored three men that were found 'guilty except for insanity' of sex crimes.

The March 18 hearing didn't delve into the nature of the residents' crimes - planning commission chair Vickie Cordell made it clear that wasn't germane - but did dive into how forthcoming Luke-Dorf, the non-profit that operates the house, had been when the city initially reviewed its development application in March 2007.

Larry Gehrke, who lives next to the Connell House, said he and neighbor Russ Van Loo were lonely voices at that meeting, raising concerns about parking and the impact the facility would have on their neighborhood.

Gehrke said that Luke-Dorf employees weren't up-front a year ago about the kind of facility the non-profit was contemplating.

'They didn't lie to us, they misled us,' Gehrke said. 'Well, we're all a bunch of idiots because we believed what they were saying.'

But Luke-Dorf lawyer Edward Sullivan said his clients made no misrepresentations during the 2007 meeting.

'It is a group home in conformance with state law,' Sullivan said. 'That was said in the staff report when this was approved. There was no misrepresentation.'

Disregarding the question of who said what and when, Sullivan argued that if the Planning Commission upheld the city's decision to revoke the home's permit, they'd be in violation of the federal fair housing act.

'This is a residential use and to the extent that the city accommodates residential uses this has to be accommodated as well,' Sullivan said.

By preventing the mentally-ill residents from living in the house, Sullivan argued, the city would be discriminating against them.

Opening the door

Planning Commissioner Catherine Sidman asked the city's attorney whether Sullivan was opening the door for a future appeal under the federal fair housing act.

The legal staff seemed to think so.

But planning commission members seemed more concerned about Sullivan's assertion that even if Luke-Dorf had built a different kind of facility than it was permitted to, revoking the group's permit now was tantamount to discrimination.

Sidman pushed Sullivan to answer a hypothetical question.

If the city had originally permitted Luke-Dorf to build a 16-unit apartment building and a group home had been built instead, would the city be violating federal law by revoking the home's conditional use permit?

'I think so,' Sullivan said.

Commissioner Sheila Griffie said she was frustrated that Luke-Dorf staffers told commissioners in March that Connell House would operate in a similar fashion to their other facilities in Washington County.

'This is a different category, the security is different, and I also recall that the staffing is different,' Griffie said.

Sullivan and Luke-Dorf employees, however, stringently denied that they had willfully misled the commission.

Even so, former Cornelius mayor Neal Knight summed up the feelings among a perplexed crowd of about 40 residents.

'I guess it's confusing. If I had to apply to the Planning Commission to have three cats because you can only have two, and then you found out I had cougars,' Knight said, 'I'd be back up here.'

The Planning Commission will hold the record open on the matter until April 28, then hold another public hearing May 20 where they will decide whether to side with city staff or Luke-Dorf.