BLAIRSVILLE — Borough residents filled the town council chamber Tuesday in protest of a plan to house as many as six developmentally disabled people in two yet-to-be-constructed group homes.
A standing-room crowd challenged the group home management company, Valley Community Services, over the on-site care to be provided, how much traffic the homes would generate, whether residents were free to walk the local streets, and the chance that mentally ill people now housed at Torrance State Hospital might be sent to the group homes.
But an overriding response to the plan from townspeople and borough officials alike was indignation.
The homes are planned on two undeveloped lots on Turner Drive and Hart Avenue. They would be within sight of each other near the intersection of the two streets.
In what was generally a footnote to the May 19 business agenda, council unanimously approved two zoning variances for what had been presented to them as a proposal by Castlerock Homes to place two manufactured “model houses” on the lots.
The Blairsville planning commission on May 12 heard Castlerock’s plan and recommended council’s OK.
Neighbors grew irate upon learning that Valley Community Services actually had bought the lots in the area that’s zoned for single-family homes and planned to add them to the company’s statewide inventory of homes for mentally disabled people. As licensed-care facilities, the purpose would be inconsistent with the zoning.
“So we did some investigating and found out about the plan,” Borough Manager Tim Evans said. “Council decided to call this hearing.”
What Valley Community Services plans would require a conditional use permit, he said.
The developer “is supposed request a hearing for a special exception. It would be a normal zoning hearing,” Evans said. “It’s not a permitted use. It’s a conditional use.”
In response to the findings, the borough has refused to issue construction permits for the lots.
But George James, the executive director of Valley, held that his project is protected by federal housing laws that consider the group homes, with a maximum of three residents in each, as single-family homes for zoning purposes.
“We want to be good neighbors and to keep the property values high in this area,” James told council and the audience of almost 30 residents. “This is our 47th home. We have homes in 10 counties.
“We would find work or school opportunities for our residents. We don’t want them to be sitting at home all day. And they will have 24/7 care from our staff.
James told residents that Valley Services “does not support” residents with criminal records, especially those considered pedophiles who would be under police and community notification requirements under Megan’s Law.
Council President John Bertolino told James that the borough has other neighborhoods more suited to Valley Services’ purpose.
“Fundamentally … we do have other zoning areas in town where there’s transitional living. That’s the reason” for the objection, Bertolino said.
In defense of the concept of group homes, borough solicitor Patrick Dougherty said he had the same apprehension when a group home was established in his neighborhood in White Township.
“When you drive through, you would never know it is a group home,” Dougherty said. “But when they first moved in, I was like you. I was very skeptical and so were my neighbors.”
Dougherty said Blairsville council has to determine whether to apply the local zoning restriction against the federal protections afforded to Valley under Fair Housing laws.
Evans put James on the spot over Valley’s low-key approach to moving ahead on its plan.
“This is the first time we have had a hearing,” Evans said. “This is a hearing for a special use, that we requested. As far as the procedure that we have, if you want to come into our community and put in something that needs an exception, it’s your responsibility to ask for that change. And that still has not come from you in writing.”
James said under the federal law, the project complies with local zoning and that Valley isn’t required to give any notification to the borough for what he said is a compliant use.
“I don’t even have to be here tonight,” James said. “But we had no intent to be surreptitious.”
Dougherty said council has 45 days to decide whether to grant or deny the requested building permits for the homes.