The story of Debbie Nall and her Lawrence home for those who are down on their luck is exploding on the Internet and in the world of television news.
And it is leaving Lawrence City Hall officials covered in a whole lot of Internet ugly. There's the headline on the website of a Kansas City television station that says "Lawrence targets woman who opens home to downtrodden." Then there is the headline on a Fox News national site that declares: "City threatens woman housing the needy with fines." A few other sites label Lawrence leaders as "infuriating" or that city officials have told Nall "to stop helping people."
The reaction from Lawrence City Hall: Huh?
Despite the story making it all the way onto national news — it ran on the Fox and Friends Weekend edition — Lawrence city officials said there is one problem with the narrative: The city currently isn't trying to make Nall do anything.
Scott McCullough, the city director of planning and development services, said the city hasn't had an active case against Nall and her property at 1501 Rhode Island Street since 2011.
"We're still trying to find out what the impetus of the stories are," McCullough said on Monday.
Comments from city officials weren't part of the original stories because the stories were broadcast over the Thanksgiving holiday when City Hall was closed.
Attempts to reach Nall on Monday were unsuccessful. But it is possible the issue does date back to 2011. There certainly was an issue back then. Neighbors filed a complaint with City Hall officials that Nall was using her large home as a type of boarding house.
McCullough said the city looked into the complaints and found a large amount of evidence that Nall was using the property as a boarding house — although it is unclear whether Nall ever charged people a fee to stay in the house. In interviews with other media, Nall has said the home was open free of charge to people such as domestic violence victims, service members needing a temporary home and displaced families.
Regardless, McCullough said the frequent nature of the boarders violated the city's zoning code, particularly the part that says no more than three unrelated people can live in a single-family zoned property. Unrelated guests are allowed but after a 30-day stay, they generally are considered an occupant.
But McCullough said the accusations that the city threatened Nall with large fines are not accurate.
"I saw one that said $30,000 in fines," McCullough said.
The city's ordinances do allow for a judge to issue a fine ranging from $10 to $500 per day for over occupancy, but that first would require the city to file formal charges against Nall in Lawrence Municipal Court. McCullough checked the city's records on Monday and said Nall's case never reached that stage. McCullough said Nall voluntarily agreed to begin complying with the city's zoning code.
"For us, it ended in 2011," McCullough said.
McCullough said Nall at the time did ask for her property to be grandfathered in so it wouldn't have to comply with the city's zoning code. But McCullough said occupancy limits on the house have been in place for decades, and thus it wasn't the type of case that qualified for an exemption.
The property, however, may qualify to be rezoned for use as a bed and breakfast or a temporary shelter, McCullough said. He said he told Nall of those options, but she didn't pursue the rezoning.
Nall, however, appears aware of the six-bedroom home's potential as a bed and breakfast. Nall recently has put the home up for sale by owner. In a marketing flyer attached to the for-sale sign, Nall writes that the home "historically" was zoned for a bed and breakfast use, and writes that it would make a "lovely bed and breakfast" in the future.
In the marketing material, Nall said she is selling the home because her husband died more than five years ago and she is looking to move into a more senior citizen-friendly home. She doesn't mention a dispute with the city, although some of the media stories mention her move is related to the threat of "big fines" from the city.
McCullough said his department hasn't talked with Nall since the 2011 matter.
"I have placed a call to her to see if I can answer any questions," McCullough said. "I think we were all a bit surprised by the stories because we hadn't had any recent communication with her or received any complaints about her property."