The city of Lawrenceburg is facing a lawsuit after an organization that serves adults with intellectual disabilities accused the city of discrimination after it prevented the organization from building a supported living home for people with disabilities.
The ACLU of Indiana filed suit in the case of New Horizons Rehabilitation, Inc. v. City of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, 4:16-cv-001690RLY-DML, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana New Albany Division Tuesday on behalf of New Horizons Rehabilitation, alleging violations of Indiana Code, the 14th Amendment and other federal laws protecting people with disabilities. Lawrenceburg, however, is maintaining that its dealings with the organization never constituted discrimination.
New Horizons is an organization that provides job training, family support, pre-vocational training and other similar services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Ripley, Dearborn, Ohio, Franklin, Decatur and Switzerland counties. The organization owns five supportive living homes in which a maximum of four people with mental disabilities live together in single-family residences with a full-time caretaker.
In 2013, New Horizons received a donated piece of land in Lawrenceburg that was intended to be used to build a new single-family residence for a sixth supportive living home, according to the court documents filed Tuesday. Three clients would be living in the home, as well as a caretaker. The property includes zoning for single-family residences.
In Tuesday’s complaint, the ACLU claims that when New Horizons’ builder applied for a building permit with the city, Lawrenceburg Director of Engineering and Zoning Director Mike Clark said the home did not constitute a consistent use for a single-family residential zoning district and informed the builder that New Horizons would have to apply for a variance.
The ACLU is challenging that directive in court, saying Indiana Code 12-28-4-8 protects the construction of a supported living home in a single-family residential zoning district.
That portion of the state code specifically reads, “A residential facility for individuals with a developmental disability: for not more than eight individuals with a developmental disability…is a permitted residential use that may not be disallowed by any zoning ordinance in a zoning district or classification that permits residential use.”
Clark also said the home would be considered a four-unit boarding house/medical facility, but New Horizon has consistently challenged that notion, court documents say.
New Horizons began the variance request process in May 2014. Part of that process included a public hearing, which resulted in at least one neighbor speaking out against the home’s proposed use. Clark then advised New Horizons that its variance request would not be granted, so it withdrew the request in June 2014.
Conversations about the proposed use of the home between New Horizons and Clark continued into 2015, at which point Clark asked that the plans that had been drawn up for the home be redesigned as a commercial building, a designation that required approval by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. New Horizons applied for approval, but court documents say the organization was denied its request because the Department of Homeland Security considered the building a home, not a commercial building.
Since that time, the city has continued to deny New Horizons’ request to build the home on the donated property in a single-family residential zoning area, according to the Tuesday filing.
“Individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities are people first, and they have the right to live, work, play and have fun in the community of their choice, just like everyone else,” Marie Dausch, New Horizons executive director, said in a statement. “We are in an era of full inclusion for everyone in our communities and cultures. Discrimination is not part of this, especially by government officials.”
In addition to its claims of a state law violation, the ACLU is also suing Lawrenceburg on the basis of discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as violations of the federal Rehabilitation Act, Fair Housing Amendments Act and Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ACLU is seeking a preliminary injunction – and later, a permanent injunction – against the city, damages and attorney fees on behalf of New Horizons.
“The Constitution, federal law and Indiana law are clear that this obvious discrimination against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is prohibited,” ACLU Legal Director Ken Falk said in a statement Tuesday.
Delmar Weldon, Lawrenceburg city attorney, said the ACLU gave the city no advance notice that the suit would be filed, but that the city intends to defend itself.
“The city of Lawrenceburg, in dealing with New Horizons, did not at any time or in any way discriminate against them or their proposed residents, and the claims by the ACLU have no merit,” Weldon said Tuesday.