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Agency makes pitch for Commack group home at Smithtown Town Board meeting

Officials with Bethpage social service agency say residents of proposed group home would "be part of the community," but others at the meeting have their doubts.

Smithtown Town Hall in 2016.

Smithtown Town Hall in 2016. Credit: Ed Betz

Clients of a proposed Commack group home for adults with developmental disabilities would make good neighbors, officials with the social service agency behind the plan told residents Thursday night at a Smithtown Town Board meeting.

“They’re looking to be by their family and friends and also to be part of a community,” said Christine Werner, director of community development for Family Residences and Essential Enterprises in Old Bethpage.

The organization, also known by the acronym FREE, notified the town April 3 it planned to buy a home for sale at 26 Coconut Dr. to use as a residence for four adults. The three-bedroom, two-bath ranch is listed as under contract for $524,999 on the real estate website Zillow.

FREE operates 87 group homes across Long Island and New York and serves 5,000 people, officials with the agency said. 

Some Coconut Drive residents said they were uneasy about their prospective neighbors. Jennifer Botte, a teacher, said her family had spent their life savings to move onto the block.

“Our expectation was that the homes around us would be owned by families, not by New York State or nonprofit organizations," Botte said. Staff and resident turnover at the house would mean she and other neighbors “would never really know who belongs to the neighborhood,” she said.

Werner, speaking after the meeting, said she anticipated that FREE’s clients would be permanent residents.

Other neighbors said they feared the home’s residents would be disturbed by noise from nearby Commack High School and isolated from stores and the Smithtown Long Island Rail Road station.

A fact sheet FREE officials submitted to the town earlier this month said they had selected the home precisely because of its “proximity and accessibility” to stores, the LIRR station and other community resources. The organization will use public transportation and a privately owned, unmarked vehicle, according to the fact sheet.

Smithtown officials have said they have little power to authorize or reject group homes for those with disabilities. The homes operate under the auspices of the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim has said there have been very few complaints about the roughly 37 group homes already operating in Smithtown, but in an interview Friday he criticized FREE's presentation, which he said did not adequately inform town residents of organization plans. FREE officials did speak privately with town residents after the public meeting. 

Wehrheim also said he was concerned about lost property tax revenue from such homes. "We're still providing the services ... but we're not receiving the taxes," he said. While the town has about 43,000 homes, those owned by nonprofits pay a quarter or less of the tax owed on comparable privately owned homes, he said. 

A FREE representative declined Friday to comment further.

A spokeswoman for the state agency did not answer questions about the town's tax concerns or the number and location of group homes, saying that information was not immediately available.

The agency is searching for housing for 2,800 people statewide and already oversees housing for 43,000, she said.

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