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State Rep. Tom Letson pleaded not guilty Wednesday through a written plea at his arraignment for a misdemeanor housing violation for leasing his parents’ former home to two men running a “sober house” for people recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Letson, D-Warren, entered the written not guilty plea in Warren Municipal Court on charges of violating housing code. The case was then transferred to Newton Falls Municipal Court.
About a dozen neighbors attended the hearing that didn’t happen.
“We will not let this drop. We will not forget. We are not going anywhere. And we understand that the court has been reassigned to Newton Falls. We intend to be there or wherever it goes. We will follow it. We are not going to give up until we have satisfaction under the law,” said neighbor Dennis Alexander.
The criminal complaint says the violation is “ongoing since July 11. The charges, filed by Warren Building Department head Christopher Taneyhill, says the penalty includes between $100 and $500 per day for each day the violation occurs.
Each day is a separate offense, the charges say.
The house was the center of a contentious zoning board meeting weeks ago, at which some 60 residents near the Foster Drive N.E. home said they are unhappy with the sober house. Some residents claim they’ve witnessed drug and alcohol consumption.
Letson, at the meeting, said as many as eight people at a time live in the four-bedroom home.
Warren Law Director Greg Hicks said at the meeting any non-owner occupied home in the city is considered a rental and has to be registered with the city health department so it can be inspected for safety compliance. The area is zoned Residential A, so a halfway house would not be allowed there. He said he plans to issue a cease and desist order to Letson.
“After the hearing with Board of Zoning Appeals, we heard nothing new that would make the city not believe the house is in violation of the zoning code, therefore he was charged with that violation of having the house used for other than a single dwelling,” said Hicks.
Neighbors said they see people drinking alcohol openly outside the home, that they can smell marijuana and complain of loud noise coming from the home.
Letson, who admitted to being a recovering alcoholic, said the residents do not understand the process of recovering from addiction.
Letson said refusing to allow the occupants to stay at the house is a violation of both the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also said the house fits the city’s definition of a single-family home because the people living there share a common living space.
Letson said there have been no complaints or police calls from neighbors about the house.
Letson said the lease was signed in June and it is good for one year, with the possibility for renewal. He said the residents will live there for at least six months while they are in recovery, so the house does not fit the definition of a boarding house, which is defined as a place where people stay for 30 days or less.
Hicks said there are agencies that specialize in alcohol and drug recovery programs, and he would feel more comfortable with the house if it was being run by a certified agency.