Group home regulations under scrutiny in McHenry Co.

Updated 7/23/2012 12:16 PM

At least seven municipalities in McHenry County are either in violation of or not consistent with federal Fair Housing Act provisions regarding group homes for people with disabilities, which in turn puts at risk their eligibility to receive federal funding, according to a consultant's study draft report.

The municipalities -- Crystal Lake, Harvard, Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Marengo, McHenry and Spring Grove -- have zoning ordinances that regulate group homes differently than single-family homes, which runs contrary to the FHA, said consultant Marjorie Williams of Mullin, Lonergan and Associates.

The Pittsburgh-based firm was paid about $40,000 by the county to conduct the "Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice" study.

Lake in the Hills restricts group homes to certain residential districts, Huntley imposes additional permit requirements, and Marengo imposes a distance of 1,000 feet between group homes, the draft report states.

Woodstock was the only municipality among the eight examined in the study whose treatment of group homes was found to be consistent with the FHA.

The municipalities were chosen by county staff because they represent a cross-section of small towns, growing suburbs and rural areas, Williams said.

Zoning ordinances that single out group homes are very common, Williams said.

"I think some of it is fear, some of it is the perception ... the misunderstanding that group homes could potentially devalue surrounding property values," she said. "There is a ton of research that shows that's not the case."

Recipients of Community Development Block Grant funds and HOME Investment Partnership funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are responsible for being in compliance with the FHA, Williams said.

Among the municipalities featured in the study, only Harvard got HUD money through the county in the last couple of years, county officials said.

The town received that $240,000 in CDBG funding for stormwater improvements.

McHenry County's own zoning ordinances are consistent with federal guidelines, but the county's HUD certification could be at risk if funds are disbursed to entities whose ordinances are in violation of the FHA, Williams said.

Altogether, McHenry County disburses about $1 million in CDBG grants and $450,000 in HOME grants each year from HUD, according to Jeffrey Harris, community development administrator for the county's planning and development department.

Harvard City Administrator Dave Nelson defended the notion that local zoning ordinances can impose requirements on group homes that go beyond federal or state regulations.

"Zoning is about local control," he said.

In the last 24 years, only one application for a group home was submitted -- and approved -- in Harvard, he said.

Nelson said he didn't know if Harvard would enact any changes to its zoning code, even if this might mean losing a shot at future HUD money.

Lake in the Hills Village Administrator Gerald Sagona said there have been no group homes in the village for at least the past 15 years.

"Moving forward, we'll take a look at our zoning ordinance," he said. "If we need to modify it because we're not compliant, we'll do so."

HUD recommends that fair housing studies be done every five years, but the last one in McHenry County was done in 1997, said Dennis Sandquist, director of the county's department of planning and development.

Sandquist took his post in late 2008.

"It takes time to get the support, the funding, the requests for proposals," he said.

When an overview of the findings was presented to the McHenry County Board, and several board members balked at the notion that some towns' ordinances violate the FHA.

That language will be modified in the final report, because only HUD or a judge can determine whether a violation indeed exists, Sandquist said.

Board member Tina Hill, chairman the board's planning and development committee, agreed. "Some of the language was inflammatory," she said.

HUD grants are "absolutely essential" to McHenry County, Hill added.

"Municipalities and social service agencies depend on that for critical services for their population," she said.

The study will be presented to the McHenry County Housing Commission at its August meeting; it will then go to the county board's planning and development committee, and to the county board for approval, Sandquist said.

The study's findings will be incorporated into an action plan that might include, for example, the creation of a fair housing officer position, he said.

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