“If it wasn’t for the Flynn Home, I wouldn’t be standing here today — I’d be dead.”
— former Flynn Home resident Bobby Miller
Anyone who watched the Asheville City Council’s March 9 formal session probably won’t want to move to Montford anytime soon. A succession of Montford residents decried rampant drug dealing, prostitution and robbery, displaying enough fear, frustration and anger in the process to scare off even the most die-hard bed-and-breakfast proprietor.
But the hearing wasn’t supposed to be about crime in this historic neighborhood that borders downtown. At issue was whether city leaders should approve a plan that would enable the Flynn Christian Fellowship Home to buy a 3.8 acre parcel of city-owned property on Courtland Avenue in Montford and relocate its facility for homeless, recovering substance abusers. (The home has operated at its current location, a few blocks away on Cumberland Avenue, for 42 years.) The move also required a conditional-use permit to allow a group home and limited office space on property zoned residential.
Last year, the Flynn Home tried to relocate to Oakley. That effort, however, was defeated after neighbors of the proposed site submitted a protest petition. This raised the bar by requiring a supermajority (in this case, either a 7-0 or a 6-1 vote) for Council to approve the proposal. As a result, opposition by Council members Joe Dunn and Carl Mumpower (based on the argument that the group home wouldn’t fit the neighborhood) was enough to sink the plan.
This time around, however, the rules were different. Several months ago, City Council amended the Unified Development Ordinance to allow group homes anywhere in the city, provided that they satisfy certain conditions. The change also eliminated the protest-petition option for neighbors seeking to block a group home, and axed a previously required hearing by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. The retooled ordinance also requires the developers of group homes to meet with neighbors before the Council hearing in order to address any neighborhood concerns.
Harry Giezentanner, chairman of the Flynn Christian Fellowship Home’s board of directors, told Council that his organization had sent 63 letters to neighbors of the proposed project, only six of whom had attended the developer/neighborhood meeting. Giezentanner also explained that the home wants to relocate in order to expand so it can treat more recovering addicts.
Not in my troubled back yard
But the public-comment portion of the hearing brought a barrage of opposition. First up was Courtland Place resident Clarence Benton, who argued that placing the Flynn Home in his neighborhood amounted to “putting the fox in the hen-house.” The area, said Benton, is already plagued by drug dealers and users. “If you’re trying to help someone, don’t put them 50 feet from it,” he reasoned, adding, “We’ve got ’em coming out of Hillcrest; we’ve got ’em coming out of Klondike,” (referring to the two public-housing developments adjacent to the neighborhood).
Another neighbor took aim at the Flynn Home’s admissions policy, implying that it would jeopardize the safety of the area. During last year’s hearing, he noted, the director had testified that the home does not accept violent offenders. The Montford resident then produced a printout of a Web page from the North Carolina Sex Offender and Public Protection Registry showing a picture of a convicted sex offender said to be living at 182 Cumberland Ave. — the Flynn Home’s current address.
Director Laurie Tollman immediately rose to defend herself. The man in question, she explained, had indeed been convicted of a sex offense. But according to her research, the victim had later recanted. The accused man, however, had lacked the resources to have his conviction expunged. Tollman said she’d made an exception in this case, adding that the Flynn Home has since changed its policy and no longer makes exceptions in such cases, regardless of any extenuating circumstances.
At that point, Council member Dunn posed a series of questions about the admissions policy. Recovering addicts, noted Tollman, are often referred by agencies such as the VA Hospital. Dunn then asked where the home draws the line on criminal records — pausing before simply adding, “Murder?” Some residents, said Tollman, have been in fights in bars or had manslaughter convictions. But even that more serious charge had stemmed from a drunk-driving incident. In conclusion, she reported that residents with criminal records “have been some of our best residents. … I believe in trying to give people a second chance.”
Then it was Vice Mayor Mumpower’s turn to launch a set of questions, starting with the Flynn Home’s “criminal history” over the past year. “We haven’t had any arrests,” responded Tollman. The one time the police were called, she added, was when the home’s staff had called for assistance in removing a resident who’d been evicted for violating the home’s rules.
City Planner Shannon Tuch chimed in, saying a call report she’d requested from the Asheville Police Department’s Montford District had shown that there were “no disruptive incidents last year.” Mumpower seemed impressed by this information, joking, “I wish my neighborhood was like that.”
Tales from the ‘hood
Not everyone who spoke opposed the home’s request, however. Former Flynn Home resident David Nesbitt testified that he’d arrived at the Flynn Home during “a self-imposed crisis,” adding, “I was bankrupt morally and spiritually. I’d been incarcerated. … They restored my life. I now own a home and a business; I contribute to society. The Flynn Home taught me a lot. It does work! My life has been renewed.”
Bobby Miller also shared a tale of recovery. “Before I got to the Flynn Home, I weighed 118 pounds, lost my house, two wives, my job — a good one with the railroad that paid $50,000 a year — and four or five Porsches. I’d hit rock bottom,” declared Miller before recounting his slow climb back, including volunteer work with the YMCA, refereeing youth soccer games, a job, and even the honor of carrying the Olympic torch during one leg of its journey.
“If it wasn’t for the Flynn Home, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” he proclaimed. “I’d be dead.”
Nonetheless, many neighborhood residents argued that moving the home a few blocks would somehow further burden an already troubled community. Heather Smith recounted a horrifying tale of a drug deal gone bad that had resulted in a suspect fleeing through her yard — a situation she described as a “regular occurrence.” Smith also said that every time she calls the police, it takes 10 minutes for them to respond. Barry Treyhune told Council that as a youth-softball coach, he often picks up his players at their homes in the Hillcrest public-housing complex, where his car is routinely swarmed by drug dealers — despite the fact that “police cars are around the block.” Marcia Shutz said she’d just relocated from Minneapolis to escape big-city crime. But since moving to Montford, she’s been robbed twice, her car has been broken into, and there’s a constant parade of trucks “with construction workers dropping off prostitutes.” Yet another Montford resident testified that she’s stopped locking her car, because it’s been broken into so often.
Despite those tales of woe, however, the opponents failed to convince Council that the Flynn Home would contribute to an increase in crime. Before the vote, Council member Jan Davis commented that he’d hired an employee from the Flynn Home and was happy with his decision. Davis also expressed concern that “all these people came out and told us about the horrible things that the Flynn Home has nothing to do with.”
Then Council member Brownie Newman made a motion to approve the plan. It was seconded by Council member Holly Jones, on the condition that the Flynn Home not be allowed to house convicted sex offenders. Both Newman and Jones noted that they live in Montford and believe the Flynn Home to be a good neighbor.
Apparently still harboring concerns about public safety, however, Joe Dunn proposed an amendment stipulating that the permit conditions be written into the deed when the city sells the land. His amendment passed on a 6-1 vote, with Newman opposed. After that, Newman’s motion to approve the project passed unanimously.