Carmel considers requiring public hearing for proposed group homes


Building a group home in Carmel could soon become a bit more complicated.

The Carmel City Council is reviewing an amendment that would designate group homes as a residential special exception that would require a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing officer to conduct a public hearing on the proposal before voting to approve or deny the application. The meetings would require public notice.

Currently, group homes with 10 or fewer residents are automatically permitted in residential neighborhoods. Unless the petitioner is seeking a zoning change or variance, group home projects are not required to be reviewed at public meetings.

The state of Indiana considers group homes to be residences, not commercial properties, even if they are owned by a for-profit business. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides federal protection for group homes, and local governments are limited in how they can regulate them.

Carmel’s Dept. of Community Services proposed the changes, which would apply to group homes with six or more residents, after receiving proposals for two group homes in the last year that were not well-received by many neighbors.

Willow Haven Senior Home, a 12-bed memory care facility planned in west Carmel, was not built because the BZA did not grant variances necessary for the project to move forward.

Construction is under way on the other group home, which will house eight to 10 adults with dementia. The 5,000-square-foot Story Cottage on the southeast corner of Carey Road and Beech Drive is expected to open in March 2021.

Many neighbors were opposed to both projects. Those opposed to Willow Haven had the opportunity to speak on the record at the BZA meeting, but those who live near Story Cottage did not have that opportunity because the project fit zoning and other regulations as proposed.

Carmel Dept. of Community Services Director Mike Hollibaugh said the city uses the hearing officer process for short-term rentals, another residential special exception, and that it has proven to benefit the city and the public.

“It helps to ensure the plans for the home meet code and are well-thought through,” Hollibaugh said. “The public hearing allows neighbors to know that change is in the works and helps to ensure that any improvements to the property will not result in negative impacts.”

The hearing officer process is often used for minor, straightforward cases that aren’t likely to be controversial enough to go before the full BZA, but Hollibaugh said past experience makes him confident it’s a good fit for group home proposals, too.

“We are comfortable and experienced with the hearing officer format for complicated requests like this and are confident it will be an effective way to conduct the hearings for larger group homes,” Hollibaugh said.

The proposed changes also require a $104 filing fee, plus $104 for each bedroom in the group home.

The Carmel City Council’s Land Use and Special Studies Committee will review and vote on the changes before sending it back to the full council for a final vote. A meeting date had not been announced as of press time. The Carmel Plan Commission voted 8-0 in favor of the changes in September.