Legal opinion issued on Oriana House purchasing Third Street site

On Friday, a contingent of Washington County residents traveled to Akron to view operations of a nonprofit drug rehabilitation facility operated by Oriana House, Inc.

The trip, planned by Marietta City Councilman Geoff Schenkel, was offered by Oriana in the hopes of calming fears voiced at a meeting at St. Mary Catholic School in December and to reopen constructive dialogue of what drug rehabilitation treatment looks like. At that meeting, parents were notified of the nonprofit’s intent to purchase 812 Third St., formerly operated as the Woman’s Home.

Oriana House Inc., a private 501(c)3 nonprofit which provides addiction treatment services, community corrections programs and behavioral health services in Ohio, already operates a halfway house and correctional center in Reno, offers out-patient services through Rigel Recovery Services in Reno and last month helped launch a drug court program with Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Mark Kerenyi.

The intended use of 812 Third St. is to provide another step in services to combat drug addiction in Washington County by providing voluntary housing and intensive therapeutic services at the former Woman’s Home.

But the parents’ concern is the home’s proximity to the school.

“I think the trip today was productive–any time people are talking together and get to know each other better, we understand each other better,” said Bret Frye, a St. Mary parent who went to Akron Friday. “But have I changed my mind at all? No, not really… Nothing that I heard today changes my view that this comes down to protecting our children.”

But what Frye said he did learn Friday was more about the next steps open to Oriana House, despite a written legal opinion by Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram penned Feb. 3. on the city’s zoning ordinances.

Bertram wrote in the opinion that Oriana’s intent of use for the property would not be a continuation of the prior non-conforming use the Woman’s Home operated under within the “R-2” residential zone.

Councilman Schenkel said he disagrees with that portion of Bertram’s opinion, after also reviewing the city’s ordinances on zoning.

“I agree with the original view held by the city engineering department,” he explained Friday, noting that on Oct. 5, the engineering department issued a zoning use certification to Oriana House, acknowledging their intended use of the property as a continuation of the kind of care and services provided by the Woman’s Home before its closing at the end of 2017.

However, Schenkel pointed out, he does agree with Bertram’s opinion that Oriana House skipped a few steps in the usual zoning, use and occupancy approval process.

“I do agree that (Oriana) has missed a few steps within permitting,” he explained.

The current process to continue a prior-nonconforming use in a residential zone is to first notify the city of the intended use of a property via zoning certification.

Then, per city codes, Oriana would need to verify that its intended use would be allowed within the zone by submitting an application for a special-use permit to the city’s planning commission.

They’re required to justify to the commission why the intended use falls within the parameters of city zoning codes and present any additional factors (for example state and federal laws) which may apply.

The city planning commission acts then as the enabling power for the city engineering department to issue three required permits: special-use, zoning and a use and occupancy permit–and to follow up and enforce the compliance of those permits.

Bertram said last week that the planning commission has the authority to rule opposite of his opinion, by considering both the presentation by Oriana and any other factors outside of specific zoning codes.

“My opinion is on the city zoning code only,” he explained. “It does not consider any state or federal protections which may be considered, that’s for Oriana to prove to the planning commission.”

If Oriana were to receive the blessing of the city’s planning commission, engineering could issue the three required permits and Oriana’s current purchase agreement with the Woman’s Home board would be completed with the sale of the property.

Only then would the occupancy certificate, issued by the Southeast Ohio Building Department (operated by Washington County officials), be relevant to Oriana’s installation of clients and staff in the property.

Oriana Executive Vice President Bernie Rochford said Friday that the nonprofit disagrees with Bertram’s opinion, too.

“We have our own attorney evaluating (Bertram’s opinion) and plan to share a formal opinion with the law director and Mr. Schenkel next week,” said Rochford.

He said with the current purchase agreement still in place with the Woman’s Home board, Oriana still intends at this point to pursue the 812 Third St. location, noting that it would be a shame for the dispute to end up in litigation.

But another avenue is also open to Oriana to circumvent a potential denial from planning commission which would then have to be reviewed upon appeal to Marietta City Council.

Oriana could submit a request to Council’s Planning, Zoning, Annexation and Housing Committee to have additional language added to city ordinances explicitly allowing drug treatment facilities within residential zoning in either an R-2 or R-3 zone.

Likewise, parties against the location of a drug rehabilitation facility within a residential zone could also petition the same committee to add language explicitly prohibiting drug rehabilitation within any residential area.

Moving forward, Schenkel said, he hopes the Friday field trip and a planned meeting between Frye and other St. Mary parents,and different Washington County officials Monday will reopen dialogue and move forward the installation of the drug treatment services Oriana is offering.

“With this process, wherever this facility lands, I hope that the community feels a role as an active participant in the solution, rather than just watching something happen to us as a community,” he said. “Like the work at Flanders Field where we’ve invested time and action into the park to not just remove the needles but discourage further drug activity, here we’re playing a role in shaping the future of our community.”

What’s Next:

• An opinion in response to Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram’s ruling on city zoning is expected by Friday from Oriana House’s legal counsel.

• A meeting is scheduled Monday between Councilman Geoff Schenkel; Washington County Home Administrator Jeff Campbell; Washington County Behavioral Health Assistant Director Hilles Hughes; St. Mary Catholic School parents Bret Frye, John Jack and Johanna Baker; and Washington County Commissioner Kevin Ritter and/or David White.

Source: Times research.