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Today's word on journalism

Friday, September 1, 2006

"[F]ew things are as much a part of our lives as the news. With the advent of sophisticated mass communication, the news has become a sort
of instant historical record of the pace, progress, problems, and the hopes of society. On the other hand--and here's the puzzle -- the news provides, at best, a superficial and distorted image of society. . . . The puzzle, simply put, is this: How can anything so superficial be so central to our lives?"

--W. Lance Bennett, political science professor, 1988

Zoning laws may keep group home for teens out of Wellsville

By Liz Lawyer

May 2, 2006 | WELLSVILLE -- A small, one-story house on 200 West in Wellsville has a real estate agent's sign out front, advertising it's up for sale. This sign has been up for several months, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.

The owners were approached by Logan River Academy, a home for troubled teenagers in Logan, to purchase the home to make it an extension of the school, but were unable to close on the deal because there was no law in Wellsville regulating group homes. Gerald Byington, who lives on the same street as the proposed group home, said federal law requires cities to have a special ordinance for cases like this. Since Wellsville had none at the time, the LRA requested that they put one in place, said Jeff Smith, director of operations at the academy.

"The city said they would have the ordinance in place by end of April, but they don't seem to be on track for that," Smith said in a phone interview. "Now it seems unrealistic to hope for it to be done this month."

Bruce Jorgensen, Wellsville city attorney, presented a proposed ordinance to the Planning and Zoning Commission Wednesday night, said Mayor Ruth Maughan.

Byington, who circulated a petition to prevent the academy from expanding to Wellsville and presented it to the mayor last week, said the ordinance looked good to him, though it needed a couple changes. He said the ordinance would limit group homes to six residents and would prevent them from being located in residential areas.

"[The ordinance] has been really researched and they have done a really good job," Byington said in a phone interview.

Byington said his concern was mostly because the neighbors would have no way of knowing the history of the teens living in the house. Because they're juveniles, their records are not public information.

The problem isn't just the potential safety hazard, Byington said. He fears the group home will change the character of the neighborhood.

"Would you want one of those near you?" he said.

A housing development is going up only a few hundred yards down the road from the proposed group home. There are also fields across the road from the house that Byington said will eventually become homes. Having a place like Logan River Academy in the neighborhood could affect the price of homes in the neighborhood, he said.

Byington cited several examples of teens attacking, even raping and killing, counselors and supervisors at other behavioral treatment facilities in Utah. In February, a 17-year-old male student at LRA attacked a male teacher who had asked him why he was not in class. Byington said he had heard of problems with drug use within the school as well.

In any case, Byington said his worries are a "moot point." When the school found out there was no ordinance, they backed off the deal. Currently the house is not under contract. He said it was a "wild guess" that they would try again after the ordinance is in place, but as of now, there is no offer on the house.

Interestingly, Byington said the owners were told the people interested in the house were a private couple, and it wasn't until later they found out it was LRA.

"That seems to be subterfuge," he said. "Why don't they come out in the open and say [what their intentions are]?"

Byington said he wishes the school would just send someone out to talk to Wellsville residents. He said he thinks communication would help the situation.

Smith agrees. He said probably 99 percent of the problem was that people didn't understand the kind of students his school works with. He said the house would be a place for boys to go when they get close to finishing their work at the academy, a way of transitioning back to normal life in a less institutional setting. He said the school has about 90 kids and the house would hopefully hold about 12, though this may be limited by the ordinance.

Smith said he was surprised at the level of opposition the proposal has received in the community. He said he doesn't know if it will work out the way LRA had hoped, but he will have to wait until the ordinance is in place to find out for sure. If the ordinance proposed in the Planning and Zoning meeting goes through, the home will not be allowed in that neighborhood because of zoning.

Mayor Maughan said in a phone interview she was puzzled about the school's choice of location. "It is a strange thing," she said.

Smith said the school liked the location because it was in an isolated rural area with lots of acreage and could provide a different kind of environment for the students to readjust to life outside the school. He said they would still be supervised and would attend classes at LRA. The idea of a home like this is not novel, he said. Other schools like LRA have places just like it.

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