Bed and Breakfast may be blocked

Published 12:58 am Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sgt. Stanford Mendenhall’s bones are as brittle as a man’s twice his age. He takes about 20 different types of medication each day to combat everything from congestive heart failure to full-body seizures.

But he never complains. Mendenhall thanks the Lord for each day he spends with his wife, Linda. Because after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq a few years ago, doctors told him his exposure to depleted uranium would soon claim his life.

In April 2006, Mendenhall purchased a house in Camden so he could spend his last days on Earth with his mother. Then, he received a second lease on life. After attending a mass spiritual healing in France with thousands of other disabled troops, Mendenhall’s health took a turn for the better. He decided it was time to make a difference.

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So Mendenhall began converting the house he bought at 213 Clifton St. into a bed and breakfast for disabled veterans and their families. He and his wife envisioned a place where people could come and relax while becoming acclimated to living in the country again. Stanford wanted his fellow veterans to experience the town where he grew up.

“We feel that there is a need for it, and we feel that they could heal here,” Linda said.

The couple contacted the Alabama Bed and Breakfast Association and obtained a business license from the state. All they needed was approval from Camden’s Adjustment Board to open a business in a residential zone.

According to local ordinances, a bed and breakfast qualifies as a special exception to opening a business in a residential zone. Soon, the neighbors that the Mendenhalls had shared drinks with on front porches and waved at across the sleepy, tree-lined street became stiff opposition to the bed and breakfast.

In fact, opposition grew so much that the board held a hearing on March 31 so residents from the neighborhood could voice their concerns.

The Mendenhalls could not attend this hearing due to a previous commitment. The couple did plead their case at another hearing Tuesday night in Camden, and Ken Crosswhite, who lives across the street from the proposed bed and breakfast, spoke on behalf of the opposition.

“My issue with the bed and breakfast is that it’s in a residential neighborhood,” Crosswhite said. “I don’t want the house across the street from where I’m trying to live my life, raise my children and retire to be a business.”

Crosswhite said he was concerned with the increased number of strangers the bed and breakfast would bring to Clifton Street, a place where children still play outside until dark. While the Mendenhalls pledged to perform a criminal background check on each person who stays at the bed and breakfast, Crosswhite said he was still concerned for the safety of the 23 children who live on the block.

The Mendenhalls would allow six people to stay for a maximum of three days at the three-bedroom house.

Crosswhite said if one business is allowed in the neighborhood, it could lead to a slippery slope.

“Then all of a sudden our neighborhood is gone,” he said.

Linda disagreed with this theory.

“It won’t be the first time this house has been used for other than residential purposes,” she said, referring to a chiropractor’s office that was housed there before current zoning regulations.

Buford Gavin, president of the adjustment board, said his first obligation is to the people of the neighborhood. Gavin said he admired the Mendenhall’s willingness to reach out to veterans, but the board must adhere to the ordinance.

“We make our decision based on the use of the property, not the people who are going to use it,” Gavin said.

Lillie Hardy, president of the Alabama Bed and Breakfast Association, said she had never seen a case like this since she took office two years ago.

Normally, she said towns welcome the additional jobs a bed and breakfast brings with open arms. At 19.5 percent in January, Wilcox County had the highest unemployment rates in the state of Alabama according to the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations.

“It’s not some fleabag motel,” Hardy said. “I think a residential area is idea. They fit right in.”

The Mendenhalls said there is another force at work here, too. Stanley, a black man, and Linda, a white woman, said the neighborhood might be looking at more than just the line between residential and commercial.

“I feel that it’s nothing to do with a bed and breakfast,” Stanley said. “I feel it’s racial.”

Mayor Henrietta Blackmon said it is a matter of the law.

“We’re just following our zoning ordinances,” Blackmon said.

The board did not rule on whether or not to allow the Mendenhalls to open the bed and breakfast.

Since some board members could not attend the hearing, Gavin decided to hold another hearing in two weeks where a decision would be rendered.

Wearing a dark blue suit, Stanford stood to the side of the boardroom while board members voiced concerns about opening a business in a residential area. Gavin suggested opening some sort of rehabilitation facility for veterans across town, in a commercial area.

“They’re going down the wrong road,” Stanford said. “It’s not a rehab home, it’s not a hospital. It’s a place where they can come and enjoy the beauty of Camden.”