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Roanoke lowers property assessments for neighbors who object to sober-living residence

Roanoke lowers property assessments for neighbors who object to sober-living residence

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Property assessments have fallen slightly in an upscale Roanoke neighborhood because men are staying in a house there while they receive treatment elsewhere to try to stop getting high.

They live in a large home in Oak Hill established as a sober-living residence last year by a national provider of opiate treatment services.

Some of those who were already living in the neighborhood southwest of downtown came to see it as a bad fit soon after it opened. They reported that the home has generated substantial vehicular traffic along two streets that end in cul-de-sacs, including at least three ambulance calls, as well as unfamiliar vehicles arriving late at night and multiple visits by police. In addition, all of the occupants are on short-term stays of a month or two and either aren’t available or interested in engaging socially, longer-term residents said.

Residents have argued, unsuccessfully to this point, that the house should be licensed as a medically oriented business. Either way, they say, it’s an anomaly in a close-knit family-oriented neighborhood.

City zoning overruled their zoning-related concerns about the home that is run by Pinnacle Treatment Services, but the real estate assessor’s office responded favorably to claims that the special home depressed property values.

In February, the office of Real Estate Valuation granted 11 of 13 requests for real estate assessment reductions from adjacent property owners, city spokeswoman Melinda Mayo said. The cuts ranged from about 4% to about 13% — less than applicants sought — and will result in a total revenue loss for the city of $4,547 in the coming fiscal year, a small amount compared to the $125 million in general property tax revenue expected this fiscal year. Mayo said Susan Lower, the director of real estate valuations, was not willing to explain the reductions because of pending litigation, but said she acted because of “circumstances that are resulting in external factors.”

City Manager Bob Cowell said he would not interfere with the assessor’s determinations but added that he thinks Lower erred.

Real estate assessed values, which exist for purposes of real estate taxation, can go down while homes in the same general area sell for good prices in a strong real estate market like the current one. The Oak Hill neighborhood, which has about 30 homes, includes two homes that changed hands since the sober-living house opened for prices higher than the sellers paid, real estate records show. The latest, which is less than five doors from the sober-living residence, sold for $599,000, $100,000 more than it did in 2018.

Lower’s office rechecks real estate assessed values annually based on sales and, in a future reassessment, it is possible that her office will raise values, Cowell said.

In the meantime, several homeowners who already received tax reductions have filed for larger reductions with the court-appointed Roanoke Board of Equalization, according to board chair Thom Hubard, who said the cases will be heard later this spring.

An expansion into Roanoke

Sober-living residences aren’t new in Roanoke and most haven’t been as controversial. According to Roanoke’s broadest policy document — its recently approved City Plan 2040 — Roanoke needs an adequate supply of transitional living facilities distributed throughout the city to help people recovering from addiction as well as victims of domestic violence, formerly incarcerated people, veterans, the homeless and the elderly. Where zoning codes need changing to make that happen, they should be changed, the document said.

Pinnacle Treatment Services, which operates 115 treatment centers in eight states from its New Jersey headquarters, last summer announced its expansion to Roanoke. It said it made a joint determination with the state that the region needed additional addiction treatment services. Pinnacle’s state-licensed outpatient treatment center is on Peters Creek Road, and it offers two residences where clients live, one a five-bedroom, three-bath Tudor in the Oak Hill area for men and one on Brambleton Avenue for women. Clients are transported to the treatment center for the day and returned to their Pinnacle-associated home at night and on weekends, according to a filing with the city. Drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited and occupants rely on peer support to foster long-term recovery.

Bob Snead, who lives next door to the house on Brambleton, expressed strong dismay that Pinnacle did not notify his wife and him beforehand of the decision to open a sober-living residence. But it has worked out OK so far, he said. “They have been good neighbors. Quiet,” he said.

Some neighbors want to see the other one shut down.

Residents Barry and Rebecca Marsh and John Harlow have asked a judge to declare the dwelling’s use as a “recovery residence” illegal under city zoning law. A trial date has not been set.

One of two attorneys representing the plaintiffs is Art Strickland, who lives across the street from the sober house. His wife, Diane Strickland, is a retired Roanoke Circuit Court judge who in 1995 started Virginia’s first drug court, which can connect offenders with treatment services in lieu of jail. Art Strickland didn’t say he opposes drug treatment, but he and his wife have argued that this is not the way to do it.

Roanoke is not the only community with a sober-hosue controversy. Crown Point, Indiana, leaders have called Pinnacle Treatment to account for placing clients in a newly established sober-living home in that community without first ensuring compliance with local ordinance. Even though the house is already open, Pinnacle Treatment has not yet qualified for a variance to continue to operate it. The city’s mayor, David Uran, told a recent meeting of concerned zoning officials and residents that Pinnacle Treatment “has not been upfront with the public about what they’re doing at that house.” Uran said he’d like to live at the home for a week to get more inforamtion for local officials.

Art Strickland reminded the Roanoke Board of Zoning Appeals at a hearing on April 14 that the pharmaceutical industry made millions off the drugs that drove the nation into an opioid overdose crisis. Now, the treatment industry seeks to make millions more, he said, calling Pinnacle and a company that holds the deed to the home, CapGrow Holding of Chicago, “the vanguard of that business plan.”

“The more warm bodies that they can get rotating through this house and other houses they have bought, the more money they make. This is purely a business plan, this is a business expansion plan,” Strickland said. Nonprofit treatment services are widely available, he claimed.

The board later granted a request by Pinnacle Treatment to enlarge the footprint of its Peters Creek Road treatment center by adding a conference room and office space.

The court case appears far from over. The plaintiffs contend the city’s decision to allow the residence, which is on Oakwood Drive Southwest, conflicts with law for that residential neighborhood. Saying he could offer only limited remarks because of the lawsuit, Cowell said the home’s occupants constitute a legally recognized family. “They may not ressemble other families in the area but by legal defintion and precedent, that’s what they are and therefore they are lawfully residing in that home,” the city manager said.

But according to the residents’ lawsuit, rules of the district prohibit what they say the property has turned out to be: a halfway house occupied by a rotating cadre of unrelated men undergoing drug treatment that is at odds with the character of the area and whose presence is adverse to the interest of other residents.

Police weren’t called to the house at all during the first six months it was open. But police have responded seven times and Roanoke Fire-EMS has responded four times since late December, according to records supplied by the city that were redacted to hide health information related to all the rescue calls and several police calls. Four of the calls to police were about suspicious activity, while a fifth was marked “information,” the records showed. Rebecca Marsh placed one of the suspicious activity reports and reported the information, the records show.

The BZA hearing covered a key part of the debate. Krista Mobley, who directs Pinnacle’s Roanoke operation, assured BZA officials that efforts were made to inform the community about Pinnacle Treatment and its services, including the home.

“I think people fear what they don’t understand,” Mobley said told the BZA.

Diane Strickland posted a comment to the BZA meeting on Facebook a short time later. “The Oakwood neighbors do not ‘fear’...addicted individuals. We fear unlicensed businesses like Pinnacle taking advantage of these individuals and not properly caring for them. This is manifest in the complete lack of supervision at 802 Oakwood, which allows for late night deliveries of who knows what and health incidents,” the post said. Strickland said later in an interview that her words were “a heat of the moment response to a misrepresentation of our neighbors.”

Attorney Meredith Haynes, testifying for Pinnacle Treatment, told the BZA the home did not need a license of any kind.

“It is not a commercial business or a treatment center, it is a home,” she said. “Its purpose is to provide people in recovery with a safe and stable place to live, which research has established very clearly greatly increases the chances of those people making it to recovery.”

In a follow-up interview, Meghan McGuire, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said by email that the agency only licenses sober-living homes that provide on-site treatment. Recovery residences such as Pinnacle Treatment’s homes in Roanoke do not, she said.

Certification of the homes by the Virginia Association of Recovery Residences has not occurred despite Pinnacle Treatment saying months ago that it would apply, according to the association website.

A Pinnacle Treatment spokesperson declined by email to comment on the lack of certification or the reductions in property values. A reporter’s shouted request for comment from the home’s residents drew glances but no one stepped forward to respond.

‘We need some love, patience and tolerance’

Tension with neighbors isn’t the norm for sober-living residences in the Oxford House network, employee Annie Cleveland of Radford said. Oxford House Inc. is a Maryland organization that operates thousands of sober-living homes, including 13 in the Roanoke Valley and three in the New River Valley that contain 124 beds, 105 of which are taken, Cleveland said in late April. She is organization’s regional, on-site official and a resident of the Oxford House in Radford, she said.

Relations between Oxford House locations and adjacent property owners are by and large smooth and in some cases friendly, she said.

There are differences between Oxford House, a nonprofit serving post-treatment clients, and Pinnacle Treatment, a corporation whose clients are still in treatment. But each shares the objective of housing people pursuing recovery in a supportive, substance-free environment until they are prepared to live independently. Sometimes, neighbors grow concerned upon first learning a sober house plans to open up, Cleveland acknowledged, but she said tensions usually die down after they find out more information.

“They hear recovery house and they think people are drinking or using and that’s not what we are,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland, who is 39, compared an individual in recovery to the Lost Son in the Bible, who in the parable of the prodigal son squanders money from his father and then, destitute, seeks to return home. The addict is “going to return back to society if society will let him,” Cleveland said.

Only because a neighborhood in Yakima, Washington, allowed a sober house to operate is Cleveland no longer a drug manufacturer, dealer and addict, she said. “My community allowed an Oxford House to be there so I could recover from my former life,” she said.

“We need some love, patience and tolerance. Know what I mean?” Cleveland asked.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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