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City officials veto maternity home permit

By BRENDA BROWN bbrown@atlantacitizensjournal.com
May 13, 2012 at 11 p.m.


Atlanta city councilmen, during their regular meeting Monday night, denied a special use permit for an organization seeking to bring a maternity home to town.

The vote doesn't mean the home can't still open.

A special use permit is needed to allow seven or more women to live at the home, which would be for "pregnant women in crisis." The application for eight residents was previously approved by the Planning & Zoning Board if First Choice Pregnancy Center met certain conditions. The permit was backed by all who spoke during a public hearing held prior to the council's vote, which was split 3-2.

Representatives from First Choice Pregnancy Center petitioned for the permit for a residence located at 2903 S. William St.

Though First Choice didn't get its permit, the home could still open for six or less occupants, as a special use permit would not be needed for the home as long as fewer than seven women were receivng services.

During the hearing, several people spoke in favor of the maternity home and none spoke against it.

Mayor Keith Crow said the council received "seven or eight letters," which were included in councilmen's meeting packets, but he did not discuss the content of the correspondence.

Councilman Dean McDuff made the motion to deny the permit. It was seconded by Robert Steger. They were joined by J.R. O'Kelley, while Arlie Kyzer and Chris Collins opposed.

"I had made my mind up what to do before the meeting, but as a pastor and a Christian, I have to vote for the home," Kyzer said.

City Attorney Jim Verschoyle noted the city had no jurisdiction if the maternity home opens with six or fewer residents.

City Manager David Cockrell said the city mailed letters to all property owners within 200 feet of the location.

The home would be for pregnant women ages 18 to 30, per the permit proposal. The Planning & Zoning Board stipulated the home have 24-hour supervision, an alarm system, and limited visitation times on Saturdays.

Kim Banks, First Choice executive director, told the council the organization is 38 years-old and "one of the oldest in the nation" to provide services for unwed mothers "who have no other place to go."

She said First Choice, which has a similar home in Texarkana, assisted more than 800 women last year through its various services.

Saying First Choice offers women a "safe home" and an alternative to abortion, Banks said there is a waiting list, both locally and nationally, for women who want to have their babies but need help.

Virginia Howard, who would be director of the Atlanta home, said such homes are "desperately needed," and she has immersed herself in the community and found "great support and great people."

"A lot of women find themselves in crisis pregnancies," Howard said. "First Choice is part of the solution, not part of the problem. We believe in giving second chances."

She said the maternity home would be monitored 24/7, and First Choice has "rules and policies in place that the women must abide by or we will show them the exit."

Howard explained First Choice offers clients lessons in life skills and building self-esteem, health and nutrition for themselves and their babies, counseling, job training and classes to help them obtain GEDs, among other services.

The proposed home is owned by Dr. and Mrs. Subramanium Balachandran, and is located on FM 251 across from Fin & Feather Club Lake.

"I think it's an awesome home," Howard said. "There won't be a big sign in front. It will be private – that's what we want. It will be full of peace, a place where these women can get order in their lives."

Donna Gail Hanner said she owns a lake house at Fin & Feather, which is not her permanent residence, but she believes a maternity home in Atlanta would be good.

She noted there is a home for special needs people in Atlanta's Indian Hills subdivision and said it has never caused problems for neighbors or caused property values to decline.

Quoting Jesus and other Bible passages, Hanner said, "It's the Christian thing to do. I would like for Atlanta to be known as a caring and concerned community."

After Hanner's speech, her pastor, Guy Williams of First United Methodist Church, said he was "going to turn the pulpit over to Donna next Sunday."

Williams added, "As Christian folks, when we have an opportunity to demonstrate values and be pro-life, we should do so. This is an outstanding opportunity for us to be involved."

Mayor Crow said the issue before the council was "land use" and "there's not a man on this board who doesn't agree" maternity homes are needed.

Melinda Womack said she lives down the street from the special needs home in Indian Hills and it hasn't affected property values in her neighborhood, or caused any problems for neighbors in the more than 20 years it has been in operation.

Eric Cain said he read Atlanta zoning ordinances, noting the home could open with six or fewer residents only requiring a special use permit if plans are to operate with seven or more clients.

"We are here tonight to determine if the ministry will be able to touch the lives of six women or eight. The only time I can find a group care home addressed in the zoning ordinance is if the home is for seven or more people. So, I think this ministry can proceed with just six people," he said.

Cain pointed out First choice has been in operation since 1974, and "has offered loving support to women, men, teens, and families faced with choices about an unplanned pregnancy. They operate a similar facility in Texarkana and will continue to do so. The Atlanta branch is just a furtherance of this wonderful ministry," he said.

He also said some people might object because First Choice helps "those girls," but some of the women are victims of sexual assault "and through no fault of their own became pregnant. But, because of their values and religious beliefs, this center gave them an alternative to abortion."

Cain said First Choice board member Cyndia Hammond is a personal friend, "and she told me this morning that there is a difference in being pro-life and anti-abortion. Those who are pro-life will do anything they can to defend the sanctity of life and that is exactly what happens at First Choice. The residents of First Choice could easily be any one of our daughters, nieces or neighbors. And I, for one, am pleased that there is an organization like First Choice willing to invest in Atlanta, Texas, and our country's youth.

He continued, "On Highway 59, in the heart of Atlanta, there is a billboard that says, 'Atlanta Texas, One City Under God'. I ask each of you to search your hearts and ask you to welcome 'those girls' and their unborn children to Atlanta, 'One City Under God.'"

After the meeting, Banks and Howard said First Choice will consider opening its maternity home here for six clients.

Per First Choice's Web site, "The First Choice Pregnancy Center (FCPRC) is an outreach ministry of Jesus Christ through His church. The FCPRC, embodied in its volunteers, is committed to presenting the gospel of our Lord, both in word and in deed, to women with crisis pregnancies. Along with this purpose, those who labor as FCPRC board members, directors, and volunteers are expected to know Christ as their Savior and Lord. The FCPRC is committed to providing its clients with accurate and complete information about prenatal development, abortion, sexual health and abstinence."

First Choice offers free "confidential services" including:

– Pregnancy tests with accurate information and options;

– Limited ultrasounds with positive pregnancy tests to determine fetal heart tones and viability of pregnancy;

– Post abortion counseling and education;

– Adoption and maternity home referrals;

– Premarital and marital counseling;

– Abstinence education;

– Black Americans for Life seminars; and a

– Mommy Program with a Mommy Store offering education classes with parenting skills, prenatal, Lamaze, life skills, men's ministry and Bible classes. Each participant receives "mommy and daddy money" to spend on items in the Mommy Store, and may purchase items including cribs, car seats, diapers, formula, blankets, bibs, and clothing.

In the only other item on the agenda, the council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution authorizing the city attorney to send a letter to the state comptroller's office to "preserve the City of Atlanta's eminent domain power."

Per www.findlaw.com, "Eminent domain, often called "condemnation," is the legal process by which a public body (and certain private bodies, such as utility companies, railroads, redevelopment corporations and some others) are given the legal power to acquire private property for a use that has been declared to be public by constitution, statute or ordinance."

Verschoyle explained the city rarely uses eminent domain, but it is sometimes needed and Texas cities must apply to the state to keep that power.

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