Group Homes Still a Thorny Issue For Communities, Residents
Group homes remain a sometimes controversial issue in St. Charles County. Local governments can't bar them but can restrict how close they are to each other.
Lisa Drier remembers a man who spent years in a nursing home before moving into a group home in Wentzville.
The man hadn’t eaten in a restaurant for years, Drier said the staff learned.
“He walked in and said, 'It feels so good to be home,’” said Drier, who is the executive director of the Emmaus Trust Foundation. Emmaus is a St. Charles-based nonprofit organization that operates group homes for disabled people.
But group homes in residential areas are a complicated issue issue these days. Some area municipalities have laws that limit the number of group homes by requiring them to be a certain distance apart.
Others require group homes to obtain a special conditional use permit from the city.
Some residents have protested putting group homes in single-family residential neighborhoods, saying they hurt property values; others who have family members who are disabled say limiting residential options for persons with disabilities is discriminatory.
Laws Differ Throughout St. Charles County
Last month, the St. Charles City Council approved conditional use permits allowing Emmaus to continue to operate six group homes for developmentally disabled. In January, the Lake Saint Louis Board of Aldermen approved a group home sought by Emmaus in the city.
A group home proposed in St. Peters by Community Living, another organization that works with persons with disabilities, was turned down in the summer of 2011 because it was too close to another group home operated by another group.
State and federal law limits restrictions on group homes. State law allows group homes with up to eight unrelated mentally or physically handicapped persons in areas zoned single family.
While local communities cannot bar them, they can regulate the distance between group homes and require permits. Some jurisdictions have varying “density requirements” on their books. These requirements limit group homes within a certain number of feet from one another.
- St. Charles County Community Development Director Wayne Anthony said last week that the county has a 600-foot requirement and a special use permit has to be approved.
- St. Charles Community Development Director Bruce Evans said that the city has only the conditional use permit requirement.
- Lake Saint Louis also requires a conditional use permit and homes can’t been closer than a thousand feet from each other, said Steve Schertel, the city’s director of community development.
- Density requirements are larger for other municipalities but require no permits. St. Peters, Wentzville and Cottleville have 2,500-foot requirements;
- Dardenne Prairie and Weldon Spring have 5,000 foot requirements;
- O’Fallon has a mile requirement between homes.
Laws Could Face Legal Challenge
Barbara Griffith, CEO and president for Community Living, Inc., and Drier said their organizations are working closely with communities about group home locations. Community Living, headquartered in St. Peters, provides a number of programs and services to 800 individuals and their families. Seventy-nine of their clients live in group homes in the county, she said.
But Griffith said local density requirements may face legal challenges particularly from families, who want their members to live in a community setting.
Organizations and local governments also may find it difficult to learn if other group homes are nearby because of privacy requirements that protect the identity of residents, she said.
The cities involved say they really don’t know how many group homes they have.
Evans said he’s not sure. “We don’t really know,” Evans said. Drier said Emmaus operates 13 homes in St. Charles.
Schertel said Lake Saint Louis officials also don’t know. They often wouldn’t know unless a physical modification to the home is requested, he said.
“They tend to run under the radar,” said Michael Padella, city administrator for Weldon Spring, who added he didn’t know if there was a group home in the city.
Group home advocates want homes that don’t stick out. “We have to be the best house on the block,” Griffith said. Griffith and Drier said their organizations work hard on upkeep of their facilities and at being good neighbors.
Homes and apartments are often rented from property owners who fix them to meet the needs of resident. Even through group home residents have jobs, many do not have vehicles parked in driveways or streets. Studies have shown that property values are often enhanced in areas with group homes, they said.
“I think we need to do a better job of educating everyone,” Griffith said. “The whole not in my neighborhood idea is huge.”
Becoming a Part of the Community
People have the right and want to live and be part of the overall community, Drier said. “There is no typical disabled person—they're young and old and in between,” she said.
And state policy may follow this trend.
Missouri Senate Bill 449, filed this year and sponsored by State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-2nd District, calls for the Missouri Department of Mental Health to develop a comprehensive plan to close six remaining state “habilitation centers” within five years. The study would look at what how to transition institutionalized developmentally disabled people into a community setting.
“People living in a community setting is the gold standard,” said Cathy Brown, program specialist with the Missouri Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities. “It’s the best we can do.”