ROOSEVELT Duchesne County officials are disputing claims that they discriminated against the clients of a proposed residential treatment center by changing zoning regulations.
A lawsuit filed May 5 in 3rd District Court by the Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division of the Utah Labor Commission contends the county showed a "pattern of discriminatory conduct" against Uintah Mountain Residential Treatment Center because the proposed facility's clients would be "handicapped."
"There are things we take really strong issue with, and one of them is that the facts are not correct," said Duchesne Deputy County Attorney Jon Stearmer.
The suit seeks millions of dollars in damages and lost wages for three siblings who wanted to open and operate the treatment center on property their family owns in Hancock Cove.
The list of potential clients at Uintah Mountain initially included teenage boys who would be treated for depression, obesity, poor performance in school, troubled family relationships, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and low self-esteem.
Two years after the original treatment center was proposed, new applications for permission to operate group homes were submitted to the county by members of the Hancock family. At that time the list of clientele was amended to include youths under age 18 "who might suffer from mental or physical impairments."
Stearmer said the record will show that Duchesne County welcomes business and is not guilty of trying to run off the proposed treatment center or the type of youths it would serve.
"The county's position has always been that these types of facilities are welcome. It is not like we created a small little square somewhere and said, 'You belong here,"' said Stearmer. "This is not a 'zoning out' situation."
According to the lawsuit, John Hancock, a Nevada attorney, his brother Tyson Hancock and sister Brooke Stevens, both of Roosevelt, are owed $43.6 million in actual and punitive damages because the county illegally relegated Uintah Mountain to a commercial A-10 zone.
Stearmer said the county's focus has always been on wise land use and nothing else.
"There's a lot of A-10 in the county, some people look at that as a very desirable place," he said.
The lawsuit asserts that current county commissioner Kent Peatross and former commissioners Larry Ross and Lorna Stradinger didn't want "troubled youth" in an area zoned as residential-agricultural and buckled to "public clamor" after neighbors launched protests.
But Stearmer who is now preparing the county's response to the suit said the state has failed to thoroughly research the county's actions in the matter.
"It is shocking how passively they have accepted everything the Hancocks have submitted," he said.
According to Stearmer, the county has nothing on file to indicate the state had contacted the county attorney's office to investigate how the Uintah Mountain zoning issue was handled by commissioners or the county's planning and zoning board.
"I have nothing in my file that they have sent in three years," he said.
Stearmer points out that in 2003, the county's planning and zoning board did give Uintah Mountain a conditional use permit so they could begin operations with 10 clients as the Hancocks had initially requested. At the time, county code allowed a "group home" in an A-5 zone as a conditional use.
However, the county rejected a subsequent request from the Hancocks for between 16 to 50 clients. The denial came because the planned facility a single-family home was not adequate to handle the larger number of clients, according to commissioners at the time.
The Hancocks appealed, but an 8th District Court judge and the Utah Court of Appeals agreed 10 clients was the appropriate number for the proposed treatment center.
The appellate court record states "the county did not act illegally in limiting the facility to 10 residents," due to a lack of information on how the increased number of clients could be accommodated on the property.
"The county has always said you get 10 (clients). If the Hancocks had ... really wanted their treatment center, they could have been up and running," Stearmer said.
However, the Hancocks and state investigators contend that Uintah Mountain has never been given permission to operate the group home with 10 residents based on the "applications at issue."
"That CUP (conditional use permit) is ... discriminatory," said John Hancock. "It places conditions on group homes ... that nonhandicapped county residents are not subject to."
Stearmer said he does agree with the Hancock family on one thing the whole conflict has been an "unfortunate event.""This should have been resolved in the 100 days the regulations give the (anti-discrimination) commission to act," Stearmer said. "This has been a disservice to everybody. Obviously Duchesne County and the Hancocks have a different view on this, but it's unfortunate this wasn't settled in 2005."