Resisting fire regulations, group homes spark controversy in upscale Johnson County neighborhoods

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - Group homes serving people with developmental disabilities are sparking controversy in some upscale Johnson County neighborhoods.

At the moment, the debate centers around one property in southern Overland Park.

Fire safety regulators and codes officials said the company owners are putting vulnerable residents at risk by not installing sprinkler systems within the homes.

However, the group home operator argues the expensive requirement discriminates against the disabled residents.

The issue is reaching a boiling point and could jeopardize whether or not the residents can continue living in their homes.

City officials require sprinkler system in group home

You wouldn’t know it driving by, but one of the properties located in the 14100 block of Garnett Street is a group home operated by Life Centers of Kansas .

But to Overland Park Fire Marshal Mark Sweany, the home is also a safety hazard.

Sweany inspected the home, occupied by five people with developmental disabilities, earlier this year. He determined the home need to install a fire suppression system, more commonly known as a fire sprinkler system.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure the occupants are safe,” Sweany said. “We’re trying to make sure we do everything properly and we’re doing it fairly while maintaining safety.”

Overland Park Codes Administrator Tim Ryan agrees with that assessment.

According to the latest codes adopted by the city in 2012, Ryan said the property is classified as a “care facility” and should be required to install the sprinkler safety measure.

Ryan said people in group homes tend to take longer to evacuate buildings during emergencies.

“Our codes say these types of group homes need to have a higher level of safety within the buildings and that’s what we’re trying to get to,” he said.

Group home owners argue requirement discriminates against residents

The owners of Life Centers of Kansas, Jason and Jessica Dalton, are challenging the city’s ruling. The Daltons declined interview requests by 41 Action News, referring questions to attorney Chris Pickering.

During a formal appeal of the sprinkler requirement, Pickering argued that treating the group home differently than other homes in the neighborhood discriminates against the disabled residents and violates the Fair Housing Act.

“If a house is safe for a normal family, then you can’t put in extra requirements,” Pickering told 41 Action News.

Life Centers claims it conducts monthly fire drills at homes. If residents can’t meet a requirement to evacuate within three minutes, they are moved to a different property with a fire sprinkler system.

In April, the Code Board of Appeals denied Life Centers’ appeal and upheld the opinion of the Overland Park fire marshal and codes administrator.

However, Pickering said the legal fight is not over yet. Life Centers is now scheduling a separate “reasonable accommodation” hearing to request the sprinkler system requirement be waived. That hearing will likely take place in early June, he said.

Other fire safety regulators following Overland Park case

Life Centers operates 10 different group homes scattered throughout Johnson County.

In Leawood, Fire Marshal Gene Hunter is closely following the debate. He even attended the formal appeal of the Overland Park group home. Leawood has the same set of codes adopted in Overland Park.

The resolution of the case will likely set a precedent and provide guidance for how Hunter should handle the three Life Centers properties located within his jurisdiction in Leawood.

“Everyone is trying to exercise an abundance of caution,” Hunter said.

Depending on how the situation plays out, Hunter could also require retrofitting sprinkler systems into the existing homes, a project that costs thousands of dollars.

Hunter said he hasn’t had issues with other group homes complying with fire codes, a sentiment echoed by his counterpart in Overland Park.

Life Centers leases the homes and the owners are unwilling to make those changes because of the impact on property values, Pickering said.

Regardless, once the company’s appeals are exhausted, Overland Park officials said they’ll need to take enforcement action. The group home will have a deadline to comply with the safety requirements.

The last resort would be to force residents to move out of the homes.

“It’s one of those things where we have to weigh the life safety risk with disturbing them and taking them out of their lifestyle,” Ryan said. “It’s not always easy to find that balance.”

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook

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