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Lawsuit brewing over Twin Lakes group home

Twin Lakes home owners have asked a Tukwila law firm to help them fight an Oxford House located in their neighborhood.

Philip Talmadge, a former King County judge who now practices privately, told the city the Twin Lakes Home Owners Association will file a lawsuit against Oxford House for violating neighborhood covenants prohibiting home-based businesses and limiting the number of unrelated residents living in a home unless the agency ceases to operate in the Twin Lakes neighborhood.

“The covenant issue is probably the clearest for the court to take a look at,” he said.

If they can’t successfully sue the Oxford House, the homeowners association will seek damages from the city for a loss of property values, Talmadge said in a letter to the city.

Oxford House counsel Steve Polin said he hopes the homeowners association has a lot of money for litigation.

“People don’t try this against Oxford House,” he said. “They try zoning us out. They don’t try covenants.”

Courts have in the past ruled against home-based businesses, like adult care homes and daycare centers, for violating neighborhood covenants, but Polin discredits arguments that the house is a business.

City staff did not require Oxford House or Compass Center to get a business license because residents will not receive any services at the house. Rather, city officials interpreted the group home to be a shared living arrangement.

Meanwhile, Oxford House South is currently standing empty.

Resident Johnny Parker left because he’s getting married soon, said Janice Hougen, Compass Center transitional housing program manager, and the other resident, Tim McLean, moved to another Oxford House because of construction at Oxford House South.

Up to eight men recovering from alcohol and drug addictions will begin moving into the house when construction is finished, in late May or early June, Hougen said.

Recovering alcohol and drug addicts are considered disabled under federal law. Because of that, they are eligible for fair housing, meaning cities, counties, neighborhood associations or other jurisdictions have to interpret their codes to make reasonable accommodations for them.

Talmadge said Twin Lakes homeowners primarily are interested in stopping the Oxford House from operating in their neighborhood — in violation of covenants they say they all agreed to obey.

“The principal thing is they want to stop the activity,” he said.

Polin said the covenant argument won’t stand.

“The deal is the Fair Housing Act does not allow the enforcement of restrictive covenants to keep out people they don’t want living in the neighborhood,” he said.

If the homeowners association can successfully sue the Oxford House and it ceases to operate from that location, Talmadge said, the homeowners probably won’t sue the city for damages related to property value losses.

City attorney Bob Sterbank said homeowners wouldn’t be able to sue the city for property value losses, anyway. He cited legal references that state that a loss in market value of a neighbor’s property would be the city’s responsibility only if the government action said to have caused the decline in value was unlawful influence.

In such a case, homeowners would have 21 days from the date the action was said to have occurred to file an appeal with the city.

“In this case, since our action was legal and it’s too late for them to challenge it, they won’t be able to establish unlawful government interference and, therefore, no taking,” Sterbank said.

Polin said he’s sorry the homeowners association feels as strongly as it does about the group home’s location in the neighborhood, but added the city isn’t bending for a good reason.

“The Oxford House is operating there legally and there’s nothing they can do,” he said. “They cannot use covenants to keep these people out.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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