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Neighbors seek recall of group home permit

WALPOLE — Neighbors are challenging plans for a group home for disabled young adults on a cul-de-sac that backs up to the Bird Middle School – asking the Zoning Board of Appeals to revoke the building permit for the project. The board will take up the matter at its Wednesday meeting.

Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Waltham, which operates four similar group residences in Norwood, said the single-family home on Mikayla Way is being renovated for nine residents and two staff members. The 2-acre property is off Washington Street.

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The residents will be “high-functioning people” with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy, who work or go to programs during the day and need help to live independently, according to agency spokeswoman Doreen Cummings.

One person planning to live in the home is a 23-year-old man who currently lives with his family around the corner, attended Walpole schools, works in the community, and wants to live on his own — like his younger sister who is away at college, Cummings said.

“There is a huge need — endless — for this type of housing,” Cummings said, adding that her agency contacted local officials and received only positive feedback. “We were blindsided a little bit by the opposition,” she said.

The opposition included e-mails that initially identified the project as a halfway house, and raised concerns about “safety, increased traffic, a threat to the overall quality of the neighborhood and decreased property values.”

“I have nothing at all against people with mental disabilities,” said Karen Conroy, an opponent who runs a family daycare on Washington Street. “It’s not about the residents themselves. It’s the fact that children who live in this neighborhood are already frightened by a group home that is already here” about a quarter-mile away.

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“We don’t need another one,” she said. “You never know when someone will turn violent; that’s my issue.”

Walpole Police Chief Richard Stillman said there are nine group homes of various types in Walpole and “we’ve never experienced an issue with a client and any of their neighbors.” Police have responded to problems within group homes, he said, but “it’s not significantly different than [problems police experience with] the general population.”

The town building commissioner issued a building permit on April 16 to property owner Jack Roche, who developed the four group homes in Norwood run by Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Work is about 70 percent complete on an addition and renovations to the Mikayla Way house, but has stopped while the appeal is pending, according to Roche associate Eugene Gallagher.

The appeal was filed by Michael and Bridget Servatius, who live on Washington Street. Their attorney, Gerald Blair, said the appeal is based on zoning issues and has nothing to do with the “identity or nature of the occupants” of the property.

“The structure is not in accordance with the zoning bylaws,” Blair said. “It’s a multifamily structure and they are not permitted in a residence b zone,” which allows only single-family homes.

Walpole officials would not comment on the case. But Norwood Building Inspector Mark Chubet said town counsel told him similar group homes in Norwood were allowed under the state’s “Dover Amendment,” legislation that exempts religious and educational groups from certain zoning restrictions and specifically prohibits discrimination against a disabled person.

“Imposition of health and safety laws or land-use requirements on congregate living arrangements among non-related persons with disabilities that are not imposed on families and groups of similar size or other unrelated persons shall constitute discrimination,” the law says.

“I treat them as single-family homes, as long as they show they are educational and nonprofit,” Chubet said.

Blair said the Dover Amendment should not apply to the Walpole project because “the qualifications are not met.”

Judith Fontes hopes the dispute can be resolved so her 23-year-old son Eric can move in.

“I just think it’s a matter of [the opponents] not understanding what the project is about and how excellent it is for the community for individuals to have their independence,” she said. “Eric is a townie and he’d love to just live on his own in his own community. He just needs a little support.”

Margaret Chaisson of Foxborough also supported the project, in a letter to the Walpole zoning board.

“As a member of the Foxborough Commission on Disability, I have many times been contacted by neighbors fearful about a new group home on their street,” she wrote. “We patiently explain time and again that group homes are not a threat, they are perfectly legal and they generally add to the neighborhood, they do not detract from it.”

“Unfounded fears and baseless hysteria [should] not be tolerated,” she added. “Those that oppose allowing people with disabilities to live in their neighborhoods based on these vague fears must be promptly and firmly informed that people with disabilities are also taxpaying citizens who have a right to live in peace.”

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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