On Monday, April 1, 2013, the Sussex County Board of Adjustment approved a request from the Home of the Brave Foundation for a special use exception to open a Women’s Veteran’s Shelter on Griffith Lake Drive in Milford. The board voted three to two to approve the request with limitations.
“This topic is very sensitive to both sides of the issue, and I requested that we table the decision at our last meeting so that we could have more time to review,” said Board Member Norman Rickard. “I spent many hours listening to the taped testimony, reading documentation and doing my own research, but the facts are that Home of the Brave is a 501(c) corporation that is federally subsidized by grants and audited by the Veteran’s Administration as well as the federal government. Shelters do not receive that type of scrutiny.” Rickard went on to explain that because the veteran’s home would accept only honorably discharged veterans, were sanctioned by surrounding veteran’s groups, and provided house monitoring around the clock, he felt the application should be approved.
“This is an existing dwelling that was unoccupied for more than a year, and fell into disrepair,” Rickers continued. “The Home of the Brave will improve this property which should raise property values in the neighborhood. In addition, there is no precedent for this type of home as this is not a shelter, but a home that will house women under contract with the federal government. The opposition provided no evidence that approving this application will cause any negative influence on neighboring properties or market values.”
Board Member John M. Mills disagreed with Rickers assessment of the application. “Although I respect your opinion and thoughts, I feel we should not focus on who will be living there as much as we should focus on the actual use of this property,” Mills stated. “How can we approve an application that places a group home in a neighborhood the county has already deemed to be used for single-family dwellings?” Mills explained that he felt that the Home of the Brave failed to demonstrate how the home would not adversely affect the neighborhood, especially when they could not state how many children would be permitted to live in the home.
“This is a five bedroom home, and Home of the Brave stated that there would be six women with children in that home,” Mills said. “That has to unfairly impact the neighborhood in some way.” Some concerns Mills cited were transportation and the traffic impact, which he says the applicant failed to address. Mills also stated that he wished both sides had presented testimony from real estate agents, appraisers, traffic engineers and septic designers who could give expert opinions on the monetary impact on neighboring property values, as well as information about traffic flows and the type of septic to be approved for the property.
“The fact is, the burden is on the applicant, not the opposition, to prove that their request would not unfairly impact the surrounding properties, and Home of the Brave did not do that,” Mills stated.
Board Member Jeffrey Hudson saw both sides of the issue. “On the one hand, transition is change, so how can we expect these women to change if they are not in a residential community? I don’t really think it is possible to screen all of your neighbors,” Hudson said. “I do see a potential problem in that the house is built for residential use, so the septic is designed for four bedrooms. Let’s make sure that we model this so that there are no more residents in the shelter than there would be in a normal residential household.” When asked, Lawrence Lank, Director of Planning and Zoning for Sussex County, stated that county code permitted no more than four unrelated people to live in a household, while that number is unlimited for those who are related.
Board Member E. Brent Workman, who cast one of the dissenting votes, along with Mills, thought that both sides did an excellent job of presenting their cases, but he did not feel that the Home of the Brave proved their need for the exception.
“I repeatedly asked how many children they planned to house in this home, and they could never give me a straight answer,” Workman said. “We can try to limit the number of people, but who is going to monitor that? I want to be sure this does not fall through the cracks.” When asked, Lank said that his office would take on the responsibility of monitoring the shelter.
“My other issue with this application is that Mrs. Boone purchased this home knowing she had to get this variance,” Workman continued. “Before she purchased the home, she should have come here rather than just assume that we would automatically approve it. I am also concerned about the fact that the women and children will be housed there for six to nine months. Children must go to school, so how will that be handled by the school district?”
The approval requires that there be no outside signage on the property, and the board restricted residents to eight total, including children. In addition, Home of the Brave must reapply to the Board of Assessments in two years. At that time, neighbors will be permitted to present any adverse effects they have suffered as a result of the shelter. Board members urged neighbors to make themselves available to serve on the Home of the Brave Board of Directors as well.