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The site of the proposed community residence on Twixt Hills Road in St. James. Photo from Google Maps

By David Luces

Nearly 100 residents filled the Eugene A. Senior Citizen Center in Smithtown Feb.14 to discuss a proposed St. James group home on Twixt Hills Road. Previously, St. James residents raised concerns over the home, but the latest meeting saw a shift in the majority of residents speaking in favor of the proposed plans.

The St. James residence would be operated by Life’s WORC, a Garden City-based private nonprofit organization, to provide housing for six adults with developmental disabilities and autism. The organization currently runs a total of 41 group homes and rehabilitation programs in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens.

“If these were people of a different religion or race, we wouldn’t be having this hearing,” Joseph Winters, of St. James said. “It should be no different for people with disabilities.”

If these were people of a different religion or race, we wouldn’t be having this hearing.”

— Joseph Winters

Winters said his son Sean would be one of the  individuals who would reside at the proposed group home. He said it was upsetting that his family had to attend a hearing so his son can continue to live in the town where he grew up.

Mary Rafferty, chief operating officer at Life’s WORC, said over the past couple weeks she has spoken to about 36 neighbors who have reached out to the agency with questions and concerns, and who have voiced support for the group home. She said the nonprofit organization was formed by parents raising children with developmental disorders concerned for these individuals’ future.

Rafferty acknowledged that many of the concerns St. James residents shared with her  had to do with how the home would affect the block. She said the agency purchased the home with the understanding that it would need renovations and updates. The organization plans on doing exterior work on the home, including fencing the yard to match the neighboring property owner and a circular driveway to ease traffic and parking issues.

“I’m asking you to give us a chance to show how it can work when it’s done right,” she said. 

Mary Lu Heinz, of Nesconset, said she similarly related to Winters as a parent of a 21-year-old son with autism. As she and her husband near retirement age they are facing tough decisions she said, while displaying her son’s high school graduation photograph.

“We are contemplating our son’s life when we are gone,” Heinz said. “Where will he go?”

She said a home, like the proposed residence, provides living opportunities for her son and others like him.

The sole opposition of the group home at the Feb. 14 meeting came in the form of an email from the Damin Park Civic Association stating that the home could permanently alter the nature and character of the neighborhood, as well as significantly increase motor vehicle traffic. The association also said its concerns are in no way a reflection on those individuals with either a physical or a mental disabilities.

Life’s WORC purchased the home Jan. 9 for $575,000, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island’s website. The four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom home boasts 2,857 square feet of living space and will have a residential manager and on-site staffing 24/7.

“[quote_left]“I’m asking you to give us a chance to show how it can work when it’s done right.”

— Mary Rafferty

Denise Walsh, an employee at Life’s WORC who oversees all staff training, said the agency’s philosophy for each person they support is “living with dignity and growing with pride.”

“Due to the Padavan Law, people with disabilities still have to advocate for inclusive —but you and I have free will on where we would like to live — without any opposition,” Walsh said. “Each of these young men are people first, and their disability comes second.”

Smithtown officials have 40 days to respond to Life’s WORC, or until Feb. 24, to raise any objections to the planned Twixt Hills group home, under New York State law. The main objection the town could argue is citing a saturation of group homes in the area, according to town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo.

Will Flower, who has known the Winters family for many years, asked for people who oppose the home to open their hearts.

“In the end there are only three truths,” Flower said. “Fact is, is that every town has residents with special needs and the best communities are those that welcome and have homes for them. The second is that this home is needed now and third is that this project shows that the St. James community is a community that cares.”

The site of the proposed community residence on Twixt Hills Road in St. James. Photo from Google Maps

A new property owner in St. James is already making waves with neighbors over plans to convert a single-family residence into an adult group home.

Life’s WORC, a private nonprofit organization that supports people who are developmentally disabled or have autism, notified the Town of Smithtown Jan. 15 it purchased a home on Twixt Hills Road with the intent of creating a community residence for six adults. Several members of the St. James community have raised concerns and are asking for a public information session about the home slated for Feb. 14 be pushed back as it falls on Valentine’s Day. 

“One of our major service goals is to establish homes that will enable persons with disabilities to reside in the community close to their families and friends while allowing them opportunities for normal life-enriching experiences,” reads the organization’s letter. 

Life’s WORC purchased a two-story colonial home that currently provides four bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms on a 0.56-acre lot on Twixt Hills Road. The nonprofit closed on the home Jan. 9 at a price tag of $575,000, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island’s website. The residence offers 2,857 square feet of living space and has a two-car garage. 

“The town can accept it or reject it based on saturation, but you have to define saturation legally.”

— Nicole Garguilo

“The residence is located in a pleasant, safe, neighborhood of single-family homes and is accessible to desirable community amenities, which include shopping, public transportation, medical, recreational faculties, parks and houses of worship,” reads Life’s WORC’s Jan. 15 letter to the town. 

The organization’s notice states the home will be used to house six adults under a residential manager with on-site staffing 24 hours a day. The nonprofit organization, started in 1971, currently oversees residences for more than 140 individuals in Suffolk and Nassau counties. It also operates homes in Queens. Life’s WORC could not be reached for comment. 

Nicole Garguilo, spokeswoman for Town of Smithtown, said while the town is not obligated to host an information session slated for the Feb. 14 town board meeting, it has reached out to the organization on behalf of residents. Life’s WORC has offered to host a second meeting, after the initial session slated for Valentine’s Day, to discuss the St. James home with concerned community members, according to Garguilo. 

Under New York State Law, Smithtown town officials have 40 days to respond to Life’s WORC, or until approximately Feb. 24, and raise any objections to the planned Twixt Hills Road community residence. Its primary basis for objection would be citing a saturation of group homes in the area, according to Garguilo, which can be tricky. 

“The town can accept it or reject it based on saturation, but you have to define saturation legally,” she said. “It’s almost like a trick question, you can accept with conditions. Usually, it’s accepted with conditions.”  

The public informational session on the Twixt Hills home will be held 7 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Eugene Cannataro Senior Citizens Center, located at 420 Middle Country Road in Smithtown. 

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

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.”

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Catholic Guardian Services supports the needy, providing food and shelter. One preparing to move into Smithtown will house disabled adults. Photo from Facebook

There’s a new neighbor preparing to move onto Long Hill Road in Smithtown, but residents have troubling concerns as to whether an adult group home will fit into their quiet community.

Long Hill Road residents presented a petition to Town of Smithtown officials at their Sept. 5 meeting to voice their concerns about a property recently purchased to build a group home for six developmentally disabled adults.

“This is not against the group home or the people in it, it’s against the location,” said Long Hill Road resident Richard Troise. “It’s the fact the town didn’t even look at the location. It’s not a good location for the amount of cars and traffic.”

Catholic Guardian Services, a religious nonprofit that provides a wide array of services and support for the needy in New York, purchased the Long Hill Road property in mid-August for approximately $440,000 to house six women, according to Executive Director Craig Longley. He said the women are “profoundly disabled,” all diagnosed with a developmental disability, in addition to being blind or visually impaired, deaf, and even wheelchair bound.

Troise and several of his neighbors are opposed to the development, concerned it will negatively impact the quality of life on their dead-end street. They point to medical personnel entering and exiting the property as a potential increase to traffic and safety hazards on a block where several families with young children reside.

“One of the reasons given to decline this group home is the nature and the character of the surrounding area would be substantially altered,” said Joan Zipfel, a Long Hill Road resident. “[It will create] frequent traffic continually driving up and down the cul-de-sac, which by nature necessitates a turn around. The negative impact of allowing this particular group home should have been addressed.”

Residents’ objections may be too late to make a difference. Smithtown residents want to know why town officials never informed them of the proposed plans for a group home on the end of their block.

Catholic Guardian Services sent a letter dated March 17 to town officials providing notice of the organization’s intention to purchase the property for a group home in accordance with state law, Longley said. The letter gave a 40-day time frame for the town to either object or respond with any concerns.

“When I got the letter, I called to speak to the director of the agency,” Supervisor Patrick Vecchio (R) said. “I called and asked them if they were going to be doing outreach to the community. I was told they would notify residents.”

Troise said he and his neighbors never received a letter or any contact from Catholic Guardian Services prior to closing on the property.

Longley said there may have been “some miscommunication” between parties. He said it is not within his organization’s standard practice to notify individual residents of new developments, but rather reach out to a community board or government to see if there are concerns. If issues are raised, the nonprofit hosts a community forum, presents their plans and answer any questions.

“In the absence [of a response], we assumed there was no opposition or no concerns,” Longley said. “We would be happy to meet with the community to share who we are and our intention of being the best of neighbors.”

Longley said the nonprofit plans to spend approximately $600,000 to renovate the property.

The group home will have three staff members per eight-hour shift, with three shifts per day. Additionally, there may be transport vehicles to get residents to and from daycare programs, but Longley said he didn’t expect ambulances or other medical vehicles to be traveling to and from the adult home on a regular basis.

Catholic Guardian Services will plan for an open house in the future, according to Longley, and invite those concerned to tour one of their other group homes on Long Island.

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File Photo

By Desirée Keegan

Suffolk County police arrested an Amityville woman, who is an employee of United Cerebral Palsy, for falsely reporting an incident about a sexual offense between an employee and a resident at the group home Sept. 13.

An anonymous caller made an allegation to the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs that a male employee of a United Cerebral Palsy residence, on Indian Head Road in Commack, inappropriately touched a female resident of the home. An investigation 4th Squad detectives determined the anonymous caller was another employee, Judy Campbell. Campbell, who had previously dated the male employee, admitted she lied about the allegation. A further investigation concluded no abuse occurred.

Campbell, 53, was arrested and charged with third-degree falsely reporting an incident. Campbell will be arraigned today at First District Court in Central Islip.