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Zoning Board Rejects Residents' Bid to Shut Home for Mentally Ill

September 21, 1989|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Saying the new owners of a Mar Vista home for the mentally ill should be given a chance to prove themselves, the Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals voted Tuesday to allow the facility to remain open despite complaints from neighbors that it does not belong in their neighborhood of single-family homes.

By a 3-2 vote, the board rejected a request from residents to close the 77-bed Meadowbrook Manor, which has been the source of problems in its East Boulevard neighborhood for nearly 10 years. Instead, the board voted to restrict the type of patients admitted to the facility and to bar patients from a recreation area in the back yard.

"I am convinced that the new owners are acting in good faith," said Commissioner Joseph D. Mandel. "I am inclined, in effect, to give (them) another chance."

Declared a Nuisance

Some residents, however, said Meadowbrook has been given too many chances.

"Essentially, they are saying: 'Trust us,' " said Maria Dante Brown, who lives behind Meadowbrook on Marcasel Avenue. "But people who have been in the neighborhood a long time have already put up with so much."

Three years ago, complaints about escaping patients, trash, noise and other problems prompted city officials to declare Meadowbrook a public nuisance. Among other things, the facility was ordered to immediately relocate to other facilities all patients diagnosed as suffering "a moderate or severe impairment" and to limit new patients to those with "mild" mental illness.

American Health Centers, which owned the facility at the time, was ordered to submit proof to the city within one year that it had complied with the requirements--something the company never did, city officials said. In February, 1988, when Regency Health Services of Newport Beach purchased the property, there were still two dozen patients "who shouldn't have been there," according to Craig Nordstrom, the company's vice president.

During a three-hour hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, Nordstrom told the board that his company has tried to be a good neighbor since buying Meadowbrook and that problems in the neighborhood have decreased in recent years. He said his company was initially at a disadvantage because American Health Centers never disclosed the problems Meadowbrook was having with its neighbors and the city.

Members Not Swayed

"We are trying to correct the situation," he said. "We are trying to run a good facility."

But two of the board's five members were not swayed. Commissioners Nikolas Patsaouras and John W. Mack urged their colleagues to revoke Meadowbrook's conditional-use permit, which has allowed it to operate since 1955. The two commissioners said there is no guarantee that Regency Health Services will remain as owners and that problems of the past will not return.

"Probably you are better, but then again, you could sell tomorrow," Patsaouras said. "Business opportunities, professional opportunities come and go every day. Mr. Nordstrom, you may not be there tomorrow."

Neighbors asked the board to revoke the permit, or at the least, require Meadowbrook to revert back to a nursing home for elderly patients suffering from senility or other "mild" mental illnesses. Some longtime residents said the facility did not cause problems when it served as a nursing home in the 1950s and 1960s. The facility first opened in 1924.

Michael Leslie, a resident speaking on behalf of the neighborhood, said Meadowbrook has become a "constant nuisance" because of loud patients, some of whom escape from the facility and wander through the neighborhood.

"This is not a case involving the NIMBY syndrome, the not-in-my-back-yard syndrome," he said. "This is an existing facility with documented nuisance problems. . . . We as neighbors recognize the tragedy of mental illness and the need for people to find treatment facilities. We are just concerned that this is not the appropriate setting in which to treat patients that are being treated at Meadowbrook."

Patient Seen Escaping

In a letter to the board, a nearby neighbor said she saw a Meadowbrook patient last month escape from the facility by smashing a second-floor window and jumping into some bushes. "We do not feel safe and fear (for) the safety of our children," wrote Gina Sommo.

But there were supporters of Meadowbrook at the hearing, too. The father of one patient complained that neighbors were looking for excuses to close the facility.

"I fail to understand why these poor people who have been victimized by life, and require the type of assistance that Meadowbrook gives them . . . should now be victimized again for what I perceive to be the stigma of having a mental facility in the community," said Jerome Berchin. "I just think they want them out . . . and the zoning reason is simply an excuse."

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