Justice Dept. investigating Lee County about housing discrimination

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Lee County’s zoning practices to determine if the county has a habit of discrimination against farm worker housing.

Lee County Commissioners, in April, 2009, rejected a company’s application to build farm worker housing on Pine Island, though county staff recommended approval, said Andrea Fraser, interim county attorney. The county’s hearing examiner had recommended against the project.

The Justice Department sent a letter dated March 7 informing the county of the investigation.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on race, national origin and other factors, the letter said. The Justice Department is not accusing the county of wrong doing, but wants to determine why the board denied the project and if there a pattern exists.

Fraser said there is no pattern of denying this type of project and she did not believe the county acted in any discriminatory way.

The legal department is gathering documents the Justice Department requested. But she advised the board against agreeing to nullify the 2-year statute of limitations set to run out in a month, which the Justice Department also requested.

Commissioner Tammy Hall said she was concerned that by not waiving the statute of limitations protection, the county could look like it was hiding something.

But Fraser said the federal government has had its time to investigate and file suit if the county was found to have violated the law, but it has yet to do so and she would not recommend to waive the statute of limitations, freeing the Justice Department to search through records indefinitely.

“We’re not going to give up that right under law,” she said.

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