The Wells County Board of Zoning Appeals will rehear a zoning issue today that could bring an end to a federal lawsuit accusing the county of discriminating against those with disabilities.
In August, attorneys for AWS Foundation sued in U.S. District Court, accusing Wells County of discriminating against nine adults with disabilities who lived at three homes owned by AWS in Ossian and Markle.
According to the lawsuit, nine unnamed adults lived at the three houses under the care and supervision of AWS. The properties where the homes are located are zoned under Wells County zoning ordinances as A-1, which prohibits group homes but allows supervised homes.
The ordinance defines group homes as a residential structure housing multiple individuals that share common areas of the structure and that share certain residential expenses, according to court documents.
In contrast, a supervised home is defined as a single-family dwelling for the housing of people not related by blood or law, and under the custody, control, tutelage, supervision or authority of any legal entity, according to court documents.
Officials said the homes came into existence between 2007 and 2011, but in late April, Wells County Plan Commission Director Michael Lautzenheiser Jr. sent a letter to the AWS Foundation, saying the three homes may be in violation of the zoning ordinance by functioning as group homes.
The letter grew out of complaints from nearby residents who did not want to live near the homes, officials said.
Lautzenheiser sent another letter to the foundation in May, saying the properties were out of compliance with the zoning ordinances. In June, attorneys for the foundation filed an appeal with the Board of Zoning Appeals, saying the properties had been improperly classified by the zoning commission.
A hearing was conducted in late June, and some residents living near the homes expressed concerns about the residents of the homes such as public indecency or roaming around unsupervised, according to court documents.
Wachtman said there had been no such concerns brought to AWS before the hearing, nor had such complaints been taken to any other authority, such as the police department.
But after the June hearing, the board voted 3-2 to affirm Lautzenheisers decision that the homes were out of compliance, according to court documents.
Now, according to court documents and Lautzenheiser, the BZA is taking up the issue again at a meeting tonight.
The hearing could resolve the zoning issues and make the matter moot, according to court documents.
In a written statement, AWS officials said they have always tried to be good neighbors within the communities where they operate.
The movement to house people with disabilities in the community began more than 25 years ago. Indiana, like most states, has closed its state institutions, which formerly housed people with disabilities – who now live among us in our communities. AWS has been serving people with disabilities for more than 50 years and provides residential services to people with disabilities in eight states. In each state, we follow legal guidelines and always strive to be good neighbors, officials at AWS said in the statement.
In Wells County, AWS has been providing residential services for people with disabilities for more than four years. During that time, we are unaware of any complaints from a resident or county official. We believe state and federal laws support these services and the right of individuals to live within the community.