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Tallahassee Halfway House Neighborhood Controversy Article 2

  • 23 Jul 2015 4:41 PM
    Message # 3447082
    John (Administrator)


    <div class="source">WILLIAM SNOWDEN</div><div class="image-desc"> A swingset, above, built just off the roadway by neighbors and identified by sign as a playground is located across the street from the Miller home where two sexual offenders live. Below, the gated driveway to the Miller home with a No Trespassing sign. Bottom, FDLE flyers for the two sex offenders are posted around the neighborhood.</div><div class="buy-pic"></div>
    A swingset, above, built just off the roadway by neighbors and identified by sign as a playground is located across the street from the Miller home where two sexual offenders live. Below, the gated driveway to the Miller home with a No Trespassing sign. Bottom, FDLE flyers for the two sex offenders are posted around the neighborhood.
    <div class="source">WILLIAM SNOWDEN</div><div class="image-desc">The gated driveway to the Miller home with a No Trespassing sign. </div><div class="buy-pic"></div>
    The gated driveway to the Miller home with a No Trespassing sign.
    <div class="source">WILLIAM SNOWDEN</div><div class="image-desc">Sign atop swingset calling it a ‘Private Playground’ for neighborhood children.</div><div class="buy-pic"></div>
    Sign atop swingset calling it a ‘Private Playground’ for neighborhood children.
    <div class="source">WILLIAM SNOWDEN</div><div class="image-desc">FDLE flyers for the two sex offenders are posted around the neighborhood.</div><div class="buy-pic"></div>
    FDLE flyers for the two sex offenders are posted around the neighborhood.

    A case of extraordinary compassion, neighborhood trepidation and questions of selective enforcement unfolded at the July 8 Code Enforcement Board hearing, concerning a transitional home at 55 Ball Court in Crawfordville.

    The board voted unanimously to find the homeowner Ellen Miller in violation of operating a boarding house in an area zoned rural residential. However, it is missionaries Tony and Renee Miller who oversee the home and pay the bills. Pastor Renee Miller said the house does not meet the definition of a boarding house, and “family care home” is the appropriate definition for their ministry allowed in the zone.
    Meeting the immediate physical needs of people – even those with serious criminal backgrounds – is the mission of the Millers’ ministry. The family operates City Walk Urban Mission in Tallahassee, which helps the needy obtain basic necessities.
    The Millers consider the Home for Men in Kenmore Estates a family care home to provide transitional shelter. They insist it does not meet the definition of a boarding house.

    The Millers plan to appeal the Code Enforcement Board’s decision, and believe local government is selectively enforcing the rule on them because ex-convicts and registered sex offenders live there, inciting pressure on the county by the neighbors to take action.

    Miller showed that other similar ministries in Wakulla County have not been subject to the same level of scrutiny, furthering sentiments that they are being singled out.
    Planning and Zoning Director Luis Serna said Code Enforcement is a complaint-driven department, and county staff does not look for violations, but follows up on reported ones.

    On appeal, the case will go to a circuit court judge to decide.
    The Code Enforcement board accepted county staff’s recommendation to find the property in violation as a boarding house, which is defined as more than two unrelated people living in a residence. While the Millers said only two men live in the house now, up to four unrelated people have lived there in the past.
    Code Enforcement Board Chairman Steve Cushman asked the county’s conflict attorney Scott Shirley: “What would happen in a single family home – three bedroom, two bath – that was rented out to four FSU college kids not related to each other, who are all paying rent and splitting it?”

    Shirley said, “If it was reported, we would have to investigate it… it would be a violation of fire code and health code. There are zoning districts where boarding houses are allowed, and that would be a perfectly appropriate use in some areas of the county.”
    The Millers were also found in violation of what could be considered technicalities on the property – possessing a Dumpster, a motor home, and unregistered cars. The Millers were ordered to pay a $150 fine, and make arrangements for an inspection to verify that the code violations come into compliance by July 29. Miller said the proposed inspection is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable search.

    Additionally, Miller said they had permission from Code Enforcement for the Marpan Dumpster. The Dumpster has since been removed, and the motor home and unregistered vehicles were eliminated, bringing them into compliance by the deadline. The motor home, Miller said, was brought to the property to temporarily house an elderly homeless couple living in their car last winter. That is the only violation Miller accepts.

    “My heart is way too big sometimes,” she said. “If I do have to pay a fine for taking two senior citizens off the street… I am willing to do that.”


    The Millers walk the talk. They are called to help “the least of these,” and that includes sexual offenders who are excluded from society, and ex-convicts trying to get back on their feet.
    The City Walk slogan reads: “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
    Miller cited Florida Department of Corrections statistics that said 22,000 men are released from corrections in the state annually.

    “Where do people go?” Miller asked. “What do they do? The worst place to have an offender is homeless and without hope. We want to make sure their needs are met. And on a spiritual level – Jesus’ blood covers every sin.”
    But Miller said she is not naïve. The family’s personal experiences further their compassion. Miller said she was a victim of sexual abuse as a young girl; and Tony Miller will forever be listed on the registry for a crime the Millers said he never committed.

    Miller said a close family friend, who was a church deacon, molested her over several years – more than 300 times. Beyond surviving the abuse, Miller said she has found freedom and victory in forgiveness.
    “It’s happening to so many people,” Miller said. “There is freedom in forgiveness. You can get past it. To have this much love for people who did the things that happened to me – that’s only from the grace of God. I am confident that every horrible, tragic thing that happens is not meant to destroy you, but make you stronger, and you can use that to help someone else.”

    In 2004, Tony Miller was accused of unlawful activity with a minor age 16-17. Adjudication of guilt was withheld. Miller said her husband was wrongfully accused, and poor police work and bad legal advice led to accepting a plea deal that gave him a “life sentence” on the registry. They lost everything, including friends.
    “For the first five years or so we were bitter, angry, hopeless,” Miller said. “Then we realized that every tragedy, God will turn for His glory, and for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. We aren’t naïve to think that everyone is innocent and wrongfully charged. There are some who have done heinous things and need to be punished. There are some who are innocent. There are some who are guilty. We never would’ve helped the first person had we not gone through this.”

    At the public hearing, Miller clarified the details about Home for Men.
    “People are saying we’re a home for sex offenders, but we’re not,” she said. “We’re not seeking out a subsection of culture. Some are just down on their luck. They stay for days, or stay for over a year. And we work very closely with law enforcement.”
    Miller said ideally they would like to build a facility farther out in the county to help more people. “There is a huge need,” she said.
    While neighbors are uncomfortable with the residential situation at the Home for Men, Miller rejects insinuations that the ministry should shut down and go away.
    “Don’t just tell us to stop,” she said. “Tell us how you as fellow citizens will help us help more people. Is it by a donation of county-owned distressed property where we can operate? Is it a grant or donation to purchase a larger plot of rural property on which to operate? A purchase of our property so we can move? We are open to whatever God has for us to do. We just know it’s not to quit and give up.”


    While the neighbors might respect the Millers’ compassionate efforts, the presence of registered sex offender Jerry Lee Parrish caused deep concern among the local homeowners. He was convicted in 1999 for traveling across state lines to a Chuck E. Cheese’s in Tallahassee to meet who he thought was a boy he’d met online. It was a sting, and Parrish was sentenced to 210 months, with credit for time served and good behavior.
    An internet search of his name produced articles linking Parrish to sex crimes as a Boy Scout leader in the 1970s. His involvement was part of a larger scandal that was essentially covered up and never reported to the authorities.
    Miller said Parrish has lived in the house since July 2014.

    “He is crippled with arthritis,” she said. “But he goes to church during the week, and Bible study. He is doing a lot to be a good citizen, and do what he has to do.”
    Scott Taranto has been an unofficial spokesman for the neighborhood. He declined to speak much on the issue, but did say, “They are willing to risk our families to achieve their goals, and we’re not willing to accept that.”
    The Millers describe the events that followed as “harassment.”
    Neighbors posted dozens of FDLE flyers on Ball Court depicting Parrish and his crimes. The signs were torn down. They were posted again. The sheriff’s office was called to intervene, and a deputy explained the law.

    Statute says local law enforcement agencies are authorized, but not required, to notify the community of a sexual offender’s presence. However, law enforcement is required to notify the community of a sexual predator. A sexual offender is a person convicted of a sex offense involving a minor. A predator designation requires that a person be convicted of a first-degree felony sex crime, or two second-degree felony sex crimes.
    “Mr. Taranto told the officer that he had received permission from the neighbors to hang the flyers on their fence posts and trees,” Tony Miller wrote in a chronological account of events. “He said he met with each household about the situation. Which leads us to wonder, why hang flyers when you already met with the four additional households on the street alerting them of the situation?”

    Neighbors erected a swing set in the right-of-way near the address on the road. According to state statute, a person who has been convicted of a violation in which the victim of the offense was less than 16 years of age may not reside within 1,000 feet of any school, child care facility, park, or playground.
    The Millers believe neighbors essentially tried to force the Home for Men’s registered offenders to be in violation of the statute by installing the swing set. But statute said if a playground is subsequently built after residence is established, they do not have to relocate.
    The Millers said the swing set’s proximity to the road was dangerous, and it was not securely installed according to legal guidelines. Tony Miller called in a complaint to Code Enforcement about the swing set, and Luis Serna investigated it. Serna said since the swing set is on a private road there is nothing the county can do about it being in the right-of-way.

    Throughout May and June, the Millers said the Home for Men was being watched by Taranto from his driveway, or by driving back and forth in front of the house in a golf cart or his SUV, and other neighbors walked through the woods to spy on the premises and residents. Pictures were taken of residents when they stepped outside the house. Trespass warnings were issued by the sheriff’s office for a property on the road, which the Millers said no one ever went near. The written warnings sent in certified mail were rejected, so the sheriff’s office called with a verbal warning.
    The Millers recorded several other incidents of interference from neighbors they say were aimed at getting rid of the Home for Men and its residents – including calls to the Forestry Division for burning leaves, and reporting repair work on the house for which a permit was not obtained.
    Access was denied for official visits to inspect the property.


    Serna said the Home for Men is being singled out in a sense – but not by the county. Similar ministries in Wakulla County might be in violation too, Serna said, but no one has complained.
    The Millers said they checked with Planning and Zoning before opening the house, and were given the green light.  
    “What I want to stop is the blatant favoritism and selective enforcement,” Miller said in an email. She looked into the licensure for Promiseland Ministries’ recovery home. Miller said it was very similar to the 501(c)3 information the Millers filed with the state.
    “If one home can run in RR-1, then the other one can too,” she said, adding that she wants Promiseland’s ministries to prosper as well.
    Even with the Millers in full compliance, it does not mean Jerry Parrish must leave the residence. The limit is two unrelated people.
    Serna said, “We have to be very careful with every case that we get, that we stick to the letter of the law. You can’t judge by whether or not you think it’s a good person or a bad person.”

    Attorney Shirley said at the hearing, “The real issue is the number of residents living there. If it’s not more than two, as far as the county’s concerned, they’re just residents. Who they are is not the county’s issue.”
    Miller reiterated the ideal outcome for the ministry, which includes not paying the $150 fine for the code violations, “which were either non-existent or corrected by the deadline.” They want to be recognized as a family care home, have up to four residents allowed, and not be subject to searches.
    Miller said, “We don’t want signs, we don’t want the house searched illegally, and we want four people to stay there.”
    Serna said this is all new territory for the county, as they have never investigated this type of issue before the Home for Men complaints. If the appeal does not hold up in court and the house must be searched, Serna said he does not know exactly how to verify the number of residents. “We’ve never been faced with this before, so I would have to work with our attorney on figuring that out,” Serna said.   
    To register as a family care home, Serna said a site plan must be filed and code standards would have to be met, and inspected.


    Much of the public hearing was spent quibbling over the property’s legal definition.
    Principal uses in Rural Residential zoning include: emergency shelter homes, family care homes, light infrastructure, mobile homes and single-family dwellings.
    According to statute, a family care home is defined as any dwelling occupied by six or fewer persons, including staff, whether operated for profit or not, which provides for a period exceeding 24 hours, one or more personal services for persons who require such services not related to the owner. Personal services, in addition to housing and food services, may include but not be limited to personal assistance, supervision, emotional security and other related services.
    Miller’s attorney Tom Thompson said, “This is a family care home under the code, and it is permitted within the land use designation. There are no professional services given, there is no treatment given. These are individuals who are at-risk of homelessness, who require a place to live.”
    Miller clarified the home is not a “halfway house,” which are facilities contracted with the Department of Corrections and limits the freedom of residents.
    The Millers said they provide non-professional services to help residents move on with their lives, including assistance in getting an ID, Social Security, or government assistance.

    A boarding house is defined as any building or part thereof… where meals or lodging are provided for a fee for three or more unrelated persons where no cooking or dining facilities are provided in individual rooms.
    The definition raised the question of fees.
    The ministry’s website said fees were charged to stay there, but the Millers changed the policy. Some time passed before their website was updated to reflect the policy change. The Millers said funding is raised through the City Walk thrift store and tithes from their church, and most of the food is donated from the ministry’s food pantry.
    “So if there are fees, doesn’t that make it a boarding house?” Shirley asked at the hearing.
    “I let people live there for free,” Miller said. “You’re splitting hairs – obviously there are expenses.”
    Thompson said, “In the family care home issue, there’s always going to be expenses, and someone’s got to pay for those expenses. I don’t see anything in there that disqualifies that. There’s been no testimony of a fee charged per resident.”
    Cushman asked Miller since the fee information was once on the website, “Have you in the past collected fees from the people living in the home?”
    Miller said while there was a description of fees, none were collected. What is not contributed to the Home for Men comes out of the Millers’ pockets.
    “We pray, and we pray hard,” she said. “My family has given up a lot to be missionaries for the Lord. My family gives up our own income to serve the least of these.”
    Shirley countered by saying, “When the county began alleging it was a boarding house, the website was changed so no one can find out if there was a fee charged. It is also the position of the county, that a resident cannot circumvent that by having a third party pay the fee.”
    Thompson said there have not been any arrests or complaints of disorderly conduct at the property.
    “I understand the neighbors don’t particularly like that, but we don’t care about what they like,” Thompson said. “What is the law? What does the law allow? If you’re going to follow the law, it’s a family care home, which is something that’s permitted. The fine is not called for.”
    The fines will increase every day that the Millers do not comply after the deadline.
    Building Official James Melvin said, “If you look at the definition of a boarding house, it pretty well fits that.”
    Questions of licensure came up too. Counsel for Miller and the county debated the requirement for licensure, and the proper channels for obtaining it.


    Board member Garland Burdette said, “It bothers me that in the United States of America, you can’t be a good guy. I want everybody to comply with the laws of the land. I don’t think we can vote to have fees, fines or penalties against these people for trying to do good.”
    Shirley said, “We sincerely hope the owner of this facility will follow the law… If the neighbors notice (more residents have moved in) they will report it.”
    Miller said she plans to follow the code.
    Cushman closed the case and said, “I believe in this country there’s a lot of people with big hearts, and you get yourselves into situations like this because of it… But it isn’t the big hearts we’re looking at tonight. We have to make a decision based on law. When you’re standing before a board, sometimes interpretations get lost and you have opposing counsels who can’t make the same determination of a word. It becomes very difficult for us as a board to make a decision, because you do want to draw in the fact that she is trying to do good for a lot of people in the world. We need to look at this case as it references to law, and make a decision based on that.
    “This is one of the toughest ones we’ve had so far.”

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    Last modified: 31 Jul 2015 9:30 AM | John (Administrator)

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