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Wells County to pay AWS’ legal bills to settle zoning dispute

Just over a year ago, the Wells County Board of Zoning Appeals reheard a zoning issue that ended up in federal court.

On Monday, the case was dismissed as the county agreed to pay a $7,500 legal bill for AWS.

In August 2012, 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 suit, nine 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 a “group home” 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 2012, 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 operating as group homes.

The BZA voted to affirm Lautzenheiser’s decision, and AWS officials sued.

A few months later, the BZA overturned its original decision after attorneys for AWS informed them that state law barred language in building codes and zoning ordinances that would hinder the residential location of developmentally impaired people.

Area residents expressed a number of concerns about those living in the homes, but with a 5-0 vote, the properties were allowed to remain.

AWS officials said they are glad the issue is behind them, and they are “thankful for our Wells County partners, neighbors and leaders who help to advance our mission to integrate individuals with disabilities into their communities.

“We currently have people living in Wells County whom we support, and we are pleased that the community supports us in these efforts,” AWS officials said.

Lauztenheiser said the homes have been in operation since the lawsuit and everything remains the same.