Sober Living Dealt Splash of Cold Water

Staying dry would be easier without the extra heat

Polly Parsons, owner of Hickory Wind Ranch, a sober living facility
Polly Parsons, owner of Hickory Wind Ranch, a sober living facility (Photo by John Anderson)

Since last year's opening of Hickory Wind Ranch, a sober living environment for women, the small South Austin facility has become a go-to sanctuary for musicians and artists in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

Drawing on the accomplishments of the women's residence, owner Polly Parsons opened a second facility earlier this year – this one for men, located several miles west near Slaughter Lane and FM 1826.

Despite the success stories coming out of Hickory Wind Ranch, the women's facility is drawing heat from local regulatory forces. In May, Travis County cited Parsons for a septic tank violation, which will cost her between $12,000 and $15,000 to rectify. In July, she received a violation notice from the Slaugh­ter Creek Acres Water Supply Corp., which provides groundwater service to roughly 80 homes in a small subdivision south of Slaughter Lane, between Congress and Manchaca Road.

The sudden attention being paid to a small facility in an out-of-the-way corner of Travis County raises immediate questions of whether Parsons is being singled out because of the type of program she is running. "I think it would be a real stretch to imagine that she is not being discriminated against," said Warren Wellborn, a developer who is helping Parsons resolve the septic and water issues. Wellborn was working up a site plan application for a new septic tank when the water board notice arrived in Parsons' mailbox.

On Friday, Sept. 17, the three-member board is scheduled to decide if Parsons is violating the supplier's rules by using a small guest house on the property to house two of the program's tenants. As the board sees it, the guest house – about the size of a small efficiency apartment – threatens to overtax the water supply system. It should be noted that the guest house has a bathroom but no kitchen, save for a sink that Parsons said she's willing to remove.

According to the water board's regs, no more than one single-family home or duplex per lot can receive water service. But Par­sons notes that the board made an exception for the previous owner, who also rented out the guest house.

"I am renting to a specific demographic of people," Parsons said, noting that the number of tenants – mostly young women who have hit bottom before they've reached their prime – ranges between four and seven women at a time who stay for three months or longer. Parsons' program also includes a few "charity beds" for women referred to her through the SIMS Foundation, which provides recovery services for musicians.

The well-appointed women's home and guest house sit on a wooded lot next door to the home that Parsons shares with her husband, artist-musician Charlie Terrell, and their daughter, Harper Lee. Both lots are among the most attractive properties in the neighborhood. Clearly, the water supply board is willing to make exceptions for other homeowners who appear to be in violation of the rules governing the subdivision. Home-based auto-repair shops and double-wide trailer homes without the required skirting are just a couple of examples. Several large tour buses are parked in front of one home, located next door to water board President Glenn Larkin.

Larkin declined to comment on how the board might rule at its meeting on Friday, but he lauded Parsons' sober living program and said he's looking for the "best way to satisfy all the interests."

There are several sober living homes in Austin, but Hickory Wind Ranch is one of those rare facilities with nature at its back door, miles from an urban setting and the temptations that could lead to a relapse. Parsons, a relatively recent California transplant, opened it as a tribute to her late father, singer-songwriter Gram Parsons, who is largely credited with introducing the fusion of country and bluegrass with rock music, most famously with the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, released in 1968. Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973, when Polly was 5 years old.

Like her father and other members of her family, Polly Parsons fell victim to substance abuse. She was able to achieve sobriety in a support system of other artists and writers, and she intends to help others stay sober in a similarly creative living environment (see "Do Right Woman," Music, July 31, 2009).

Parsons' recent problems with the authorities are nothing new for sober living facilities, which often become targets of municipalities or neighborhood associations. But Parsons has collected stacks of articles and legal cases that point to federal protections – chiefly the Americans With Disabilities Act and federal fair housing laws – for people in recovery who are living under the same roof. Nonetheless, she wants to resolve the water supply matter peacefully, without a prolonged battle with the water board. She is willing to make a number of concessions, including removing a sink in the guest house, installing a rainwater collection system, or, as the water board advised her, obtaining a permit to drill her own well.

The latter, combined with a rainwater collection system, would be her best option, Wellborn believes, because Parsons would then be able to break off from the water supply corporation altogether. Wellborn realizes that resolving the water issue won't necessarily clear her of future regulatory hurdles. "I'm trying to stay focused on a single task of getting [Parsons] into compliance," he said. "It's one thing for [the water board] to ask her to comply, but it's another thing for her to be able to comply, because the rules are a moving target."

With few local or state rules pertaining to sober living environments, Parsons and other local providers are banding together to lobby for legal protections. "This subject matter may be foreign for now," Parsons says, "but I'm looking forward to the day when Texas begins to regulate and gives us the structure that we need."

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Hickory Wind Ranch, Polly Parsons, Slaughter Creek Acres Water Supply Corp.

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