Tue., 12:40pm: UPDATE2 State Rep. Letson arraignment scheduled

WARREN – State Rep. Thomas Letson, D-Warren, will be arraigned at 9 a.m. Sept. 4 in Warren Municipal Court on a misdemeanor charge of violating zoning codes for allegedly allowing a house he owns at 3171 Foster Drive to be used as a “sober house.”

The charge was filed by building inspector Christopher Tanneyhill.

Letson inherited the house from his parents in June. He entered into a lease agreement with two men who use it to help those recovering from addictions.

The property was the subject of a heated zoning appeal hearing Thursday afternoon in City Council Chambers.

A large crowd which included disgruntled neighbors turned out for the hearing.

Letson argued the Fair Housing Act and the Americans for Disabilities Act make discrimination against the eight occupants of the home unconstitutional.

“These laws make any discussion about not allowing people covered under the laws to live in this house a violation of federal and state law,” Letson said.

The state representative is appealing the original decision made in July by the Engineering, Planning and Building Department. That department ruled that the property is being used as a rooming or boarding house, which is not allowed in the zoning district.

Letson’s arguments also challenged ”single-family dwelling” as defined by the city in reference to the the city’s Residential A zone. There are eight people living at the residence on Foster Drive.

“Given the fact that the city of Warren uses in its definition of a single-family unit ‘one or more persons who live together in one dwelling and maintain a common household, the family may consist of a single person or two or more persons whether related by blood or not,” Letson said. ”The courts have repeatedly said ‘family’ is a broad an inclusive term.”

Letson asked the Board of Zoning Appeals to either disregard the ruling or set a variance allowing the occupants to continue staying on the property.

“None of the people who are occupying this structure have had any calls on them by the police force, any complaints made on them on the upkeep of the house, any complaints directly to the lease holders or myself by any neighbors anywhere,” Letson said.

The hearing gave neighbors a chance to be heard during the public comments portion of the appeal. Several area residents took to the podium complaining of drug use, constant traffic and other disturbances occurring at the home.

“Mr. Letson claims that his residence is being used as a sober house,” neighbor Natasha Frenchko said. “However the many people that live in our neighborhood have seen evidence that contradicts this claim. People have smelled marijuana coming from that residence.

“So when he claims that the house is a sober house and he continues to tell you such lies, it upsets many if not all the people in our neighborhood because we live there and we see what’s going on daily,” she said.

Letson refuted this claim, saying residents are routinely tested for drugs and alcohol as a condition of their housing. He said alcohol is strictly prohibited at the home.

According to Frenchko, recovering addicts potentially living at the home is not the issue of most neighbors.

“I don’t want any outside observer to think that we are discriminating against anyone,” Frenchko said. “Our neighborhood is filled with mental health professionals who have worked with recovering addicts. Some of us have spent our entire careers trying to help people. We just see what’s going on.”

Fellow neighbor Diane Hernandez told the zoning board one of the reasons her family chose to move onto adjacent Hallsey Drive was the peacefulness and serenity of the neighborhood. These qualities have been interrupted by the home at 3171 Foster Drive, she said.

“My neighbors have been complaining of speeding traffic, excessive noise, loud parties, trespassing and multiple people going in and out of that residence at all times of the day and night,” Hernandez said.

“Having been a nurse for 35 years, I’m well aware of the importance of drug and alcohol rehab,” Hernandez said. “I’m also well aware of the recidivism rate among the same. The activities there are very suspicious in my opinion and need to be investigated thoroughly before a zone change.

“The future of our neighborhood and city are in your hands and shouldn’t be based on the owner’s political position.”

Third Ward Councilman John Brown said his office has received 21 letters pertaining to this case.

“My property is in close proximity to this residence,” he said. “I am concerned by the increase in traffic as well as the noise level that has and will develop in our neighborhood.”

Neighbor Stillman Rockwell also urged the board not to grant a variance in this case.

Updates will be posted. Complete coverage can be found in Wednesday’s Tribune Chronicle print edition.