Group home issues prompt attempt at legislation

What may have started as a case of "Not in my back yard" has escalated to an attempt to change a state law on group homes sited in Connecticut.

"We're not against group homes," said state Sen. Clark Chapin (R-30th) of New Milford, who introduced a bill in Hartford aimed at giving local officials more clout in issues involving these homes.

"There are five such homes in New Milford," he said, "but there has been some difficulties with a group home recently sited in the town. And the town is at a loss."

Neighbors to the home on Red Fox Lane have cited issues from traffic and parking concerns to fear for their children's safety.

Chapin and state Rep. Richard Smith (R-108th) introduced the bill to the state Senate Planning & Development Committee that would have empowered towns in January.

As now written, the law requires town's zoners to consider group homes of six or fewer residents in the same way it approves single family residences.

The law also gives residents who have issues with these homes the right to petition to have their licenses revoked if the homes are not complying with state statute or regulations.

Chapin wants to see that law strengthened, as does his wife, New Milford mayor Pat Murphy.

Chapin and Smith's bill would require the appointment of a municipal agent who would be notified if a group home were being considered for a town by the state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, the state Department of Developmental Services or the the state Department of Children & Families.

The agent would serve as a liaison between the town and the group home.

Zoning regulations apply when approving group homes would have been changed to take in considerations beyone those applied when approving a single family home.

"We're recognizing in many cases these houses have requirements for staffing that can affect traffic and parking on small roads where they are sited," Chapin said. "In the case New Milford officials are dealing with, the house is not sited well. It's on a small lot on a dead end street."

Chapin said he knew getting the bill passed would require "heavy lifting."

A draft of the bill was submitted to the Joint Planning & Development Committee in March but arrived there as the legislative session was ending.

For the bill to be considered in a future session, the committee would have to bring it forward. Chances are slim, Chapin said, but possible.

"What this has done is provide an opportunity to engage in open dialogue with the entity that owns the facility," Chapin said. "They have offered to sit down and discuss issues that have been raised."

Lois Nesci, the chief operating officer for the Center For Human Development Inc., that owns the home, declined comment.

She noted the bill had "come to a standstill," giving her no reason to speak about the issue.

Support for the bill included two of the home's neighbors, Sharon Griffing and Bert Ouellette.

"There is no way possible for my neighbors and myself not to be in direct contact with the residents there," testified Griffing, who noted she is concerned for her children's safety.

Ouellette cited too many cars were parking on the narrow road, impeding traffic and creating safety issues for emergency vehicles responding to incidents.

The parking issue has since been resolved. Providers involved with the home's residents care will meet at other locations, according to DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon.

She said the private provider who runs the home met with neighbors on a regular basis about concerns and tried to educate them about its resident's mental health issues.

"These attempts have been unsuccessful," Delphin-Rittmon told the committee.

She said an attorney had been hired by the Center for Human Development who spoke with New Milford's zoning department prior to the purchase of the house. A letter from the zoning department stated the house is conforming, she testified.

The mayor and Laura Regan, the town's zoning enforcement officer, submitted written testimony in support of the bill.

"Traffic and public safety issues abound in such a mixed zone," the letter reads, "especially where children are concerned."

The letter continues the law as written is "an invitation to abuse and leaves neighborhood homeowners to their own devices and expense in litigating nuisance lawsuits."

Chapin said the issues being reported by neighbors of the group home didn't rise to the level of anyone being harmed, but had more to do with the number of cars parking along the narrow road and land-use issues.

Mary Mason, DMHAS communications director, said "periodically there are individuals who express concerns about congregate living situations."

"A lot of times it requires educating them about the symptoms people with disabilities have," she said. "We like to think once they understand, their concerns are alleviated and they realize these homes can be good neighbors. That has been our experience."

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, supports the bill. COST represents 150 small towns in Connecticut.

"We have heard from several small towns with concerns about placement of group homes," she said. "This bill would have allowed towns to make sure group homes were placed in sites that make sense for the community."

Gara said she has not heard complaints about residents of group homes infringing on neighbors rights or safety.

She said often concerns are about strain placed on community resources when numerous group homes are sited in the same town.

"When group homes can sidestep zoning regulations it can affect the character of a neighborhood," Gara said. "A lot of small towns we represent support efforts to assist disabled individuals in group home settings."

"They just want to make sure land-use regulations are being followed," she added, "and community resources aren't being strained."

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352