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Developmental Disabilities Institute

The home at 73 Henearly Drive in Miller Place has residents on the block up in arms over its purchase for redevelopment by the Developmental Disabilities Institute. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Residents in and around Miller Place are rushing to the defense of a group home for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities that will soon open on Henearly Drive after some neighbors said they didn’t want the facility on their block.

The neighbors, interviewed earlier this month, said they believe the Developmental Disabilities Institute home — which will house six, low-functioning autistic adults over 21 years old and full-time staff members — will damage the family-friendly community’s quality of life by increasing traffic flow and lowering property values of homes on the street.

“It doesn’t make any sense — why you would put this in the middle of a neighborhood, how is that fair?” said Janice Simon, a Henearly Drive resident.

Her concerns were not aimed at the six individuals who will live in the home, she said, but the overcrowding of vehicles and possible dumpsters around the property. Other neighbors agreed, adding unease toward the group home’s rotation of employees.

“So sad that we have people so heartless in our town … makes me sick.”

—Maureen Le Blanc

“I don’t want strangers up and down my block … all day and night,” one resident said. “[With] everybody smoking and on their phones and hanging out — no way — it doesn’t work like that.”

But these voices of opposition were not shared by all.

Between Sept. 12 and 14, in a closed Mount Sinai-Miller Place Community Facebook page, waves of support for the group home, as well as anger and shame toward those against it, came from more than 50 North Shore residents in the comments section, when a TBR News Media article about the incoming group home and its critics was posted.

“So sad that we have people so heartless in our town … makes me sick,” Maureen Le Blanc wrote of the neighbors.

Sound Beach resident Patti Kozlowski, who previously lived in Miller Place, said she was horribly ashamed by the comments made by residents on Henearly Drive.

“I say, if you don’t want a group home next door to you, let your neighbors vote to see if they want you to be next door to them,” Kozlowski said. “They key word is group home. It’s the home for people to live. It needs to be a big house in a nice neighborhood. That’s where it belongs.”

Eileen Walsh said no one is better than anyone else.

“We can and should all learn a lesson in kindness and acceptance from DDI residents,” she wrote on the Facebook page. “The only people upset about this are selfish elitists.”

Rich Pistone said the residents on Henearly aren’t setting a good example.

“Teach your children diversity [and] that we occupy this planet with many other people … some a tad bit different than the norm,” he wrote. “Residents on Henearly better get over themselves.”

Suzanne Cloke said the comments made by the residents on Heanerly Drive do not speak for the entire community.

“[The original] article put a bad taste in my mouth, making Miller Place look like a town full of horrible people that would steal candy from a baby’s mouth,” she said. “There are people who would welcome the home with open arms and would also treat the residents with respect and compassion.”

“I would really like them to think, what if it was their child?”

—Wendy Flammia

Several residents who posted in the group also vouched for the reputation of DDI, a Smithtown-based nonprofit founded in 1961 that has launched more than 30 group homes throughout townships in Suffolk and Nassau counties.

“DDI is an amazing company and the developmentally disabled population consists of wonderful individuals who deserve to live in a community just like every other person,” wrote Ryan Nelson. “What some of those people are saying is disgraceful.”

A majority of the people who commented said their own lives have been touched by the special needs population.

Kim-Marie Duckett of Miller Place Road, who travels three hours a day to a group home in Pennsylvania to visit her 18-year-old autistic son, whose behavior she said was too extreme for local homes, said in an interview the Henearly Drive facility will be a welcome addition to the town. Her son will never be able to live on his own, Duckett said, and this could end up becoming a living destination for him down the line.

“It’s just such a positive thing for me because when my son does age and become an adult, the better chance he will have to be closer to me with this home,” she said.

Duckett said the neighbors’ complaints regarding the home boils down to a lack of education, which she’s willing to provide for them.

“It’s just ignorance and people just looking for something to complain about,” she said. “It chokes me up that people have such an opinion. They have no idea what it’s like living in this situation. The individuals have a right to be somewhere. DDI is excellent and I’m sure the house will be kept nice. Shame on Mrs. Simon. I would take the opportunity to use my big mouth and she would feel really small by the time she walked away from me.”

Deanna Landy-Marino, of Tyler Avenue in Miller Place, worked at DDI as a college student and has a 6-year-old nephew with special needs. She said a DDI home is usually the most beautiful home in its area.

“It has a wonderfully cut landscape, there’s no uptick in traffic, it causes no aggravation and the residents of the house are wonderful,” she said, not understanding concerns over an increase in traffic. “There are a bunch of cars all over Miller Place, whether it’s a DDI house, my house or somebody else’s house. If anything, they should pay attention to some of the people that actually speed down their roads. I don’t think it’s going to happen from a DDI house.”

“It chokes me up that people have such an opinion. They have no idea what it’s like living in this situation. The individuals have a right to be somewhere.”

—Kim-Marie Duckett

Kathi Yaldei, a Mount Sinai resident whose 25-year-old son has special needs with life-threatening seizures, challenged the neighbors’ reasoning for complaining.

“I think it’s a cover-up and not what their real issue is,” Yaldei said. “I think they used that as an excuse when in reality they don’t want the residents there. The individuals should be welcomed to any area that a group home has purchased.”

As the mother of a 15-year-old daughter with special needs, Wendy Flammia, who lives on Gristmill Lane in Miller Place, wants to introduce her daughter to the neighbors against the group home.

“She’s a loving kid, and when I bring her out, she makes people smile,” Flammia said. “I would really like them to think, ‘what if it was their child?’ What if, God forbid, tomorrow their child had a brain injury and needed a place for them to go, how would they feel then? It really upsets me, but I think the Facebook comments have shown there’s a lot more support for it.”

But Henearly Drive resident Dominick Caroleo, who is among those in opposition to the group home, said he volunteers at local churches helping cook for homeless people and those with disabilities and maintains that his stance has nothing to do with the special needs individuals.

“It’s not the people we’re against,” he said. “It’s what the home is going to do to the appearance of the neighborhood. There’s always going to be traffic moving back and forth over there and people coming in and out of the house with different shifts and all that [and] they’re not paying property taxes. It’s just going to bring our property taxes up. Time’s going to tell.”

Miller Place resident Taniya Faulk, who has been diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, said the neighbors are basing their concerns on hypothetical situations.

“Let’s not build around the possibility of a problem,” she said. “If there is one, then address it at the point where the problem occurs. I don’t understand what the big uproar is. It upsets me to think that I grew up in a town that is this close-minded.”

The home at 73 Henearly Drive in Miller Place has residents on the block up in arms over its purchase for redevelopment by the Developmental Disabilities Institute. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

A group home for young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities is heading to Henearly Drive in Miller Place, but some residents on the block are up in arms over the purchase.

The group home will be the most recent in a string of homes across Suffolk County set up by the Smithtown-based Developmental Disabilities Institute, and will house six  low-functioning autistic  adults over 21 years old, as well as three full-time staff members.

The establishment will function as a place to call home for those with disabilities who have aged out of the nonprofit’s  residential programs for children.

DDI’s director of development, Dan Rowland, said the company went into contract May 23 to buy the house at 73 Henearly Drive for redevelopment.

“It’s a family neighborhood. It’s just very upsetting the amount of traffic it’s going to bring. They’re going to create a nuisance.”

— Janice Simon

Despite speculation of turning the entire front yard into a parking lot, he said there is only a plan in place to widen the property’s driveway to accommodate four vehicles for employees and visitors, and rules will be put in place for the home’s residents to keep neighbors at ease. The parking will also accommodate minivans used to transport group home residents anywhere they need to go in the community.

Residents near the property said the new development will disrupt the community’s quality of life, pointing to staff members entering and exiting the property as potential risk for an increase in traffic and safety hazards in the area — which, they said, is predominantly quiet, peaceful and occupied by children.

“It doesn’t make any sense why you would put this in the middle of a nice neighborhood, how is that fair?” said Henearly Drive resident Janice Simon, who is worried there will be a congestion of vehicles and possible dumpsters in the street around the property, where children currently play.

“Everyone deserves a place to live, but you don’t just disrupt what we have,” she said. “It’s nice, it’s a family neighborhood. It’s just very upsetting the amount of traffic it’s going to bring. They’re going to create a nuisance.”

A letter sent out by DDI’s director of adult services Aug. 18 invited residents living within 500 feet of the property to an information session to discuss the group home, and how the organization operates, at the Comsewogue Public Library Aug. 29.

Following the meeting, a letter circulated among neighbors addressing concerns surrounding the group home and urging them to contact community leaders if they oppose it.

“This block has enough traffic on it,” the letter titled “Attention Neighbors” read. “We do not want people rushing to get to work driving down this block that is very populated to begin with.  … Although we are not begrudging the residents the ability to live in a group home, we feel that the choice of 73 Henearly in the middle of a highly populated block is not the right one.”

A resident on the block, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed.

The home purchased by the Developmental Disabilites Institute is located on the corner of Willmington Street and Henearly Drive in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

“That’s the main concern,” the resident said. “It’s not who’s going to be living there or what type of people are going to be living there, but the increased traffic and the effect on home values, opening a business in the middle of a very quiet neighborhood. I just think putting it in a busier area like Miller Place-Yaphank Road would be more appropriate.”

However, Rowland expressed objection to the home being seen as an imposing business.

“Just because people are providing services in the home for someone who needs it doesn’t make it a business … this is a home,” Rowland said.

According to the director, the organization has launched more than 30 group homes throughout townships in Suffolk and Nassau counties, including Brookhaven and Islip,  and many of them sit in residential neighborhoods.

He said, in choosing a location for its group homes, DDI works alongside the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities in Albany to gauge the amount of care facilities in a town — including other group homes, hospitals, vocational centers and nursing homes — to ensure it won’t be opening a home in an area that is oversaturated.

The house at 73 Henearly Drive was chosen because of the surrounding neighborhood, the features of the structure and its suitability to house the six adults, Rowland said, adding that the individuals who will live there deserve a home in a safe community as opposed to being confined inside an institution.

“We understand that people are going to be uncomfortable with the idea of something like this being introduced to their neighborhood, and we’re sympathetic to the viewpoints of the neighbors in the neighborhood we’re moving into, but we also have to protect the rights of the people we care for,” Rowland said. “We hope to overcome their discomfort with it by demonstrating that we can, and will be, good neighbors with everybody.”

In response to those on Henearly Drive anticipating a neighborhood eyesore in the group home, the director of development said the 55-year-old nonprofit’s track record speaks for itself.

“We keep them looking good, we maintain them and we respect the neighborhood values in terms of noise or any sensitivity of increased traffic,” he said.

“Group homes don’t have quality of life problems. There’s no loud music, there’s no speeding and no unkept properties. And what about the people who need the services? What about their quality of life? They’re human beings.”

— Jane Bonner

Dawn McCarthy, president of the Miller Place Special Education Support Group, said she doesn’t see the home as a blight on the neighborhood either.

“I don’t think it’s going to interrupt quality of life at all,” McCarthy said. “Miller Place has a fairly decent-sized population of autistic children. I wonder how residents would feel if it was their children’s home. I can’t imagine it’s going to have an impact on anyone’s resale value.”

An anonymous resident expressed concern over a purported risk of individuals leaving the home at night, which she said is why the residence will be electronically locked and equipped with alarms.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) called the opposition to the group home disheartening.

“I’ve explained to everybody, and this is the truth, that in almost 10 years in office, I have never ever had a problem with a group home in my council district,” Bonner said. “Group homes don’t have quality of life problems. There’s no loud music, there’s no speeding and no unkept properties. And what about the people who need the services? What about their quality of life? They’re human beings.”

Henearly Drive resident Janine Biancaniello made it clear her opposition was aimed at the group home’s employees and not its six individuals.

“When I come home from work, my home is my safe haven,” Biancaniello said.“I don’t want strangers up and down my block, 500 times, people I don’t know coming and going all day and night … [with] everybody outside smoking and on their phones and hanging out — no way — it doesn’t work like that. We’re going to have to pay their taxes while our property values go down. They’re going to change our way of life.”

The group home is protected under the Padavan law, which allows group homes to supersede local zoning as long as they meet state codes.

DDI said it is uncertain at this time when the group home will open.

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