Appeals continue against Decatur health center

Residents of Decatur Heights who object to the Peer Support and Wellness Center will try next week to convince the city’s board of zoning appeals that the center doesn’t belong in their neighborhood. If they fail, they say they are ready to go to court.

At issue is the center's day program, which allows clients to drop in as needed. Neighborhood opponents would prefer the center be residential so that relatives and other outsiders are not streaming through the neighborhood on a daily basis to drop off and pick up the center's clients. Zoning in the neighborhood allows for a residential treatment home, but not day programs.

"How can you be a resident if you only stay at most seven days? And 25 people who come every day, they are not just visitors,” said Soren Christensen, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years.

The center opened on Sycamore Drive in 2008 as a joint project between the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network and the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Instead of licensed mental health workers, the center is the only one in Georgia to offer peer counseling during daily activities and respite beds for up to a week, said Sharon Jenkins Tucker, who heads the consumer network.

People voluntarily are screened to be admitted during times of crisis as an alternative to hospitalization.

No one has complained about the program or its work. But some neighbors claim that the short-term stays and drop-in visitors make it impossible for clients to become part of the neighborhood. The opponents in Decatur Heights say they want to know who is in their neighborhood, and if people are coming and going that isn't possible.

They have complained since last spring to the city, which at first also questioned whether the drop-in visitors met city zoning rules. The center argues that the facility is a residential care home with a daily-treatment component.

“Their documentation is that their main program is overnight respite, and the day program is in support of that activity,” said City Manager Peggy Merriss, who added that the city must interpret its zoning ordinance broadly as part of the Fair Housing Act.

The matter heads to the zoning appeals board for its review on Monday night. Both sides plan to be out in force for the session.

“We don’t want to harm the program,” said Grace Ann Young, a resident who also opposes the center. “We want answers on how it ended up in a neighborhood. We are ready for legal action to get that answer.”

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