There was plenty at stake when the Payson Council met in executive session Thursday night to decide how to respond to a complaint filed by the owners of a halfway house for recovering alcoholics and addicts.
The larger issue was not whether to allow the house, a two-story residence at 307 S. Bassett Lane in southeast Payson, to continue operating, but whether the town's existing planning and zoning codes are discriminatory.
"We filed a complaint with the Arizona Attorney General's office, and the council has to decide if they're going to comply with the fair housing and Americans with Disabilities requirements," Lee Sears, a consultant for Steps House, Inc., said.
Steps House is a Glendale-based non-profit corporation that operates similar houses in Glendale, Paradise Valley and Phoenix.
Following the executive session, the council voted unanimously to direct Town Attorney Sam Streichman to "review and recommend changes to the town ordinances regarding halfway and group homes in residential districts."
Sears said that while he doesn't expect any problems with the town, the next step, if necessary, would be a lawsuit.
"Besides the support of the attorney general's office, we have a letter from Housing and Urban Development saying they will join a lawsuit if we have to file one," Sears said.
The issue apparently surfaced shortly after the halfway house opened in November.
"We went down (to Town Hall) and applied for a license," he said. "None of the categories they have fit us, and we're not willing to go under guidelines that don't apply to us. One of the regulations was that we had to notify everyone within 400 feet, and we don't have to do that."
The town then told Steps House it would have to close its facility.
"Payson sent us a cease and desist, so we responded by contacting the appropriate government agencies," said Cindy Thompson, manager of the home which currently has four residents.
"The city codes are not in compliance with the fair housing and disabilities acts," Sears said. "We told (the town) we are going to say we are what we are and we are allowed to be that under the law. You have to accommodate us."
Sears said that under federal regulations, facilities like those Step House operates can be placed in any community and any neighborhood.
"The only guidelines that apply to us are those that apply to any family living in the community," he said.
The situation would be different, he explained, if Step House homes offered on-premises counseling.
"Federal guidelines exempt us from licensure because we don't provide any mental health services," he said. "If you allow (the town) to categorize you, then they get to put in guidelines that affect your operation. We're not asking to be exempt; we're asking for the law to be obeyed."
Streichman said a good part of the dispute lies in the definition.
"They wish to operate this place where various people reside, and the question is whether our zoning code as it exists permits them to do it," Streichman said. "If it doesn't, (the question becomes) is there a discriminatory housing issue?"
Two spokespersons for Alcoholics Anonymous said their organization is not involved with Steps House, but that residents of the group home attend their meetings. The home, one said, provides a much needed service.
"If a woman gets in trouble, she can go to Time Out," the spokesperson said. "Until this home was here, there was no place a guy could go."
According to both Sears and Thompson, another issue that always lurks just below the surface is the "not in my back yard" mentality.
"Some of our neighbors say they don't want anybody here who is not 'socially acceptable,'" Thompson said. "But how far are you going to go with that? Are you going to shut down shelters for the abused next? Shelters like ours help people become productive citizens. I always ask them, 'What if this were your family member?'"
Sears said one of the misconceptions is that neighborhoods where halfway houses are located are threatened by drunks and addicts wandering around causing trouble. "We want the public to know these are recovering people," he said. "Federal law said we can't allow them to stay if they're still using. They're far more of a threat if they're out on the street. This way we know where they're at and what they're doing."
Both Sears and Thompson also emphasized that placing halfway houses in poorer neighborhoods or commercial areas is counterproductive.
"It's pretty hard for me to stand in front of a bunch of guys and say, 'I love you and want you to get better,' when they live in the ghetto," Sears said.
"It just wouldn't help if everybody with a problem is sent to a bad part of town," Thompson said. "We need a step up, not a step down."
The bottom line, Sears said, is that the town is "going to have to figure out a way to let us do what we do. We don't fall into any of their (pigeon holes), so we've told them we're willing to let them create ... a category."
He said the issue is much bigger than whether Steps House gets to stay where it is.
"If there's no niche for us, then there is no niche for other people like us say, a group home for retarded children. We want to make it so anybody with special needs can get into Payson without having to do battle with town hall," Sears said.
"There will always be a public outcry, but the courts have told cities they need to look beyond that," he said. "As of now, the town is cooperating, and I believe they will do the right thing."