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The Jefferson County Commission is considering a Land Development Code (LDC) amendment that would allow residential care facilities of up to six residents in all land-use districts where family residences are allowed.
Commissioners held their first public hearing on the issue on Thursday evening, July 19, with a second hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16.
Residential care facilities are defined as home-like settings that accommodate up to six elderly residents and provide more comfortable care for their clients because of their small size, as well as generally being more compatible with the surrounding residential properties.
Currently, according to Planning Attorney Scott Shirley, the LDC allows residential houses and institutions in agricultural land-use districts, but not residential care facilities. The proposed change would not only correct this situation, but it would also bring the county into compliance with state law, Shirley said. Section 419.001(2) of Florida Statues, to be specific, he said.
“By statute, we have to allow it,” Shirley said.
Agricultural land-use districts are classified as Ag-20, Ag-5 and Ag-3, depending on respectively. Agricultural land is generally considered commercial, as the aim of agricultural activities is to realize revenues via the production of animals or crops. Still excluded from agricultural land-use district under the proposed LDC change would be care facilities of seven or more residents.
Triggering the amendment was the application of a woman who wants to a put a private residential care facility on her five-acre property.
“These are licensed care facilities,” Shirley said. “Non-licensed care facilities will not be allowed.”
He explained that by law, such facilities must be licensed and house two residents per bedroom. The homeowners, however, does not have to live in the house.
Marcie Hamilton, whose Ag-20 property is adjacent a nursing home, wanted to know if the presence of residential care facilities would impose the same restrictions on adjacent properties as nursing homes now do. She said she was prevented from spraying or conducting other agricultural activities on her property because of the proximity of the nursing home.
Shirley said the only restriction with regard to residential care facilities was that one couldn't be within a thousand feet of another. Otherwise, no other restrictions applied, he said. As for the traffic at such facilities, he said it would be minimal, largely limited to the dropping off and picking up of the residents.
“This is like adult daycare,” he said.
Commission Chairman Stephen Fulford also reminded Hamilton that the LDC gave agricultural activities priority. To reassure her, he read specific language from the LDC stating that “Farming is the basic intent of agricultural land-use areas. Residential use is allowed but is secondary in nature and must accept all characteristic farm activities of noise, smells, dust, spray odors, timber clearing, etc.”
“So this facility can't impede the agricultural activities of adjacent properties,” Fulford concluded.
Commissioner J.T. Surles expressed concern that the proposed change could put the county on the proverbial slippery slope. He wanted to know if legal limits could be imposed to restrict the allowance to only elder care facilities, not drug or sex offender treatment facilities.
Not to worry, Shirley assured him. Sex offender and drug treatment facilities were heavily regulated by the state and weren't allowed in residential areas, he said.
Hamilton, however, wasn't done.
“This says all residential areas,” she said, referring back to the LDC amendment. “Why not just give the permission to people who are asking for it, rather than across all residential districts? The way it's written now, they could put one of these facilities in the middle of Holly Hills. And there will be traffic, because people will visit. Sometimes, it's so noisy next door to my house, that it rattles my windows. It looks to me that this change is being done to satisfy a few people and inconvenience a lot more.”
Why not do it as special exception instead of countywide, someone suggested.
“It can't be done as a special exception,” Shirley said. “The Florida Legislature made the decision for us and the only remedy is to go through the Legislature.”
In fact, he said, if commissioners were to deny the application, it could arguably constitute a statutory violation.
“The local ordinance doesn't allow it, but the state statute allows it,” Shirley said. “And the statute says that the local government shall not prohibit the siting.”
Commissioner Betsy Barfield expressed frustration. If the state was going to mandate the change and the county had no choice in the matter, why even bring the issue up before the board? Barfield asked. For that matter, why even have a board, if the state was going to make the decisions? She would feel more comfortable with the proposal if it was made a special exception, she said. Otherwise, she had a serious concerns, she said.
“How are we going to monitor this?” Barfield asked. “Is is one bedroom per person? What about signage? This in a big issue. It gives me heartburn. It seems to me that they're going to turn residential into commercial. I like to see some limitations. I can't vote for it as it stands. My goodness! I just can't do it.”
Commissioner J.T. Surles likewise expressed concerns. He mentioned that he had spoken with a county resident who had been an investigator in South Florida, where such facilities currently exist. This individual , Surles said, had horror stories to tell. He said the individual had wanted to attend the hearing but had been unable to do so because of a previous engagement. He, however, would like to invite the individual to the next hearing so that the commission could hear the stories.
In the end, the commission decided to continue the hearing on Aug. 16.