Statesboro's city government has imposed a six-month moratorium, beginning Oct. 1, on any zoning variances that would allow more single-family houses to serve as group homes.
The resolution approved 4-0 by City Council on Sept. 3 means that the council does not intend to approve any variances of this kind before April. Meanwhile, the city staff has been instructed to research zoning and land use regulations that can be applied to group homes, such as those for people in addiction recovery.
"I'm concerned that we have a growing industry in our community and, you know, variances are supposed to be for variances — they're supposed to be for unusual circumstances — and when we've got 30 to 40 of these facilities in town, these are not a variance anymore, these are a business," said District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum.
He had suggested the moratorium at the previous meeting, Aug. 20, when other council members joined in directing City Attorney Cain Smith to draft the resolution. Council members said they are not opposed to the recovery homes but want to allow time to create appropriate rules specific to them.
The '3-unrelated' rule
Currently, without a conditional-use variance, Statesboro's zoning ordinance prohibits more than three unrelated persons from sharing a house in a single-family residential zone.
"Especially considering our comprehensive plan says we want to maintain existing single-family residential neighborhoods and we're putting eight, 10, 14 people in a house, it's funny we don't like it when it's six college students but when we create a business, all of a sudden it's OK," Boyum said.
City staff had not reported an actual count of houses being used as group homes. The "ballpark" estimate of 30 to 40 was given by City Planner II Owen Dundee during the previous meeting.
At that meeting, the council also unanimously approved a variance for Alicia Barnes Burnsed to use a five-bedroom house on East Main Street in an R-15 residential zone as an "addiction recovery community residence" for 10 adults.
"The Statesboro zoning ordinance does not address or define group homes, personal care homes or recovery residences or designate an appropriate zoning district for such uses," Dundee had noted from the report on Burnsed's request.
In fact, the city's planning and development staff has included this or a similar statement in a number of reports prepared in response to previous group home variance requests.
At last week's meeting the moratorium appeared on the agenda for a "first reading." But Boyum pointed out that the requirement for first and second readings applies only to ordinances, not resolutions, and Smith agreed.
So Boyum's motion and District 3 Councilman Jeff Yawn's second were for the moratorium to go into effect. The resolution states that the city will suspend processing of group home variances from Oct. 1 through March 31. However, it includes an exception for applications "for reasonable accommodation," which Smith said ensures compliance with the federal Fair Housing Act.
During the Aug. 20 meeting both District 5 Councilman Derek Duke and Boyum alluded to a horrific August 2018 incident involving a former resident of Journey to Sober Living's recovery residence on Carmel Drive.
Three women, Georgia Southern University students, together in a car were kidnapped by a man, identified by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Statesboro police as Bradley Justin Cochran, 40, outside a Fair Road supermarket. One of the women escaped by jumping out of the vehicle in Statesboro, but Cochran forced the other two to drive him to Candler County and sexually assaulted them, investigators reported at the time.
After the other two victims escaped, the vehicle was found burning off Lillian Street in Metter, where Cochran apparently set it on fire. He was found dead, of apparent suicide, at another Metter location, police reported.
Cochran, who had a record of multiple arrests on drug charges, had been ordered to recovery by a court in Pickens County while charges were also pending against him from 2017 on three counts of child molestation and three counts of sexual battery against a child. He had reportedly walked away from Journey to Sober Living and checked himself into a local motel before the kidnapping and assaults.
Statesboro officials found that Journey to Sober Living lacked zoning approval for the home. But Journey to Sober Living LLC applied, and the council — after hearing testimonials from residents and former residents who credited the organization for their recovery — awarded JSL three variances last Oct. 16 for recovery home addresses on Carmel Drive and Donaldson Street. That vote was 4-1, with Duke voicing the only "nay."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.