The Denison Planning and Zoning Commission recently granted initial approval to update the city’s zoning ordinance to reduce restrictions for household care and community homes for the disabled and elderly. The series of changes to the ordinance are designed to bring the city’s requirements in line with both state and federal guidelines and fair housing laws.

The ordinance update would allow for smaller home nursing, mental health, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation residential programs of six or less people, by right, in most zoning districts.

“The theory is that the city should allow for group homes without any more restrictions,” interim Denison Planning Director Phyllis Jarrell said during the meeting.

Under current code, conditional use permits are required for these developments. Additionally, the city code addressed multiple varieties of housing for individuals with disabilities, rehabilitative care, elderly housing, institutions for alcoholic, narcotic or psychiatric patients, and nursing homes that had overlapping uses.

Under the proposed ordinance, the city would allow smaller programs of up to six residents and two caregivers, by right, to be located in any zoning district. However, these programs would still need to meet state and federal regulations on level of care and local building codes.

The commission originally discussed the topic in April and called for a public hearing on the topic. With the action, the amendments will now be forwarded to the Denison City Council for final approval during an August meeting.

During the previous meeting, Development Services Director Gabe Reaume said there likely are group homes already operating within residential neighborhoods within the city. He added that they do not look any different than a normal home in many cases. In recent months, the city has had inquiries regarding this kind of development in addition to a permit application for a residence with six bedrooms and bathrooms, Reaume said.

“It is being constructed as a single family house, but if you look at the design, it would support this kind of use,” Reaume said in April.

Tuesday’s action would put the city’s requirements in line with state guidelines for housing. Last year, a lawsuit was filed against the city of Fort Worth regarding denied zoning requests for similar programs. The lawsuit argued that the city was in violation of fair housing laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In April, Jarrell argued that the changes to the ordinance are meant to reflect individual rights to find adequate housing. As some conditions, including mental health and substance abuse, are qualified as disabilities, this would protect these individuals from being zoned out of adequate housing.

During Tuesday’s meeting, commission Chairman Charles Shearer voiced concerns over some of the uses that would be allowed by right without any city oversight. Primarily, Shearer’s concerns related to what impact concentrating individuals with substance abuse issues may have on a neighborhood. Shearer noted concerns about safety, especially that of children, and the effect it may have on property values.

“What I have issue with is people with addiction issues being plopped down right in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” he said.

Shearer said he has recently read stories of similar programs in Florida that did not receive proper oversight and led to improper care. Shearer also worried that this would introduce a criminal element to otherwise good communities.

“I can understand there are issues with this if there isn’t the proper oversight and governance,” Jarrell said.

Commissioner Matt Looney said mental health, addiction and substance abuse problems can, in some cases, be considered a disability, and as such, these individuals have protections under the law. Commissioner Mary Karam also noted that it is not P&Z’s job to police these programs.

Karam also asked for clarification on whether the ordinance update would allow for boarding houses, with more than six residents, throughout the city. Jarrell said this was a different use, and is covered in a separate section of the city’s zoning ordinance.

When put to a vote, the proposed amendment was approved unanimously. Shearer, despite his concerns, said the commission had little choice but to approve the change as it adhered to both state and federal guidelines.