Dozens of Smithtown residents spoke in favor of a proposed St. James group home for six adults with developmental disabilities and autism at a town meeting Thursday night.
Town officials have no approval authority over the home, which would operate under New York State oversight, and there was no town council vote on it. Still, the hearing at the town senior center brought out staff of Life’s WORC — the Garden City not-for-profit that would operate the home — as well as many parents of children with autism and sympathetic neighbors.
“If these were people of a different religion or race, we wouldn’t be having this hearing tonight, and it should be no different for people with disabilities,” said Joseph Winters, whose 24-year-old son, Sean, has autism and would be one of the home's residents. The younger Winters is a lifelong St. James resident. “We all deserve to live in a nice home, and people with autism do too,” his father said.
Winters is part-owner of Winters Bros., a major regional waste management company that contracts with a number of Long Island municipalities including Smithtown, where it hauls recyclables. The family has lived in St. James for three generations.
Life’s WORC plans to move this summer into a single-family, two-story Colonial-style home on a .56-acre Twixt Hills Road lot. The group plans to renovate the home, which it bought for $575,000 Jan. 9, but the home footprint will not change, Mary Rafferty, Life's WORC's chief operating officer, said in an interview.
Rafferty said neighbors would likely notice little change beyond construction of a backyard fence whose style was chosen to match the one next door. Unmarked minivans will park in the driveway and drive residents to community destinations but will not beep when they reverse, she said. The home will be staffed 24 hours a day. Rafferty declined to give staffing ratios, citing residents' privacy.
Previous hearings in Smithtown about group homes for people with disabilities were far more contentious than the one Thursday, with neighbors worried over endangered home values and quality-of-life issues.
No one spoke in opposition to the home Thursday night, though a clerk read into the record an email from the Damin Park Civic Association warning that the home could “permanently alter the nature and character of the neighborhood,” introducing traffic and staffers who would be strangers to an area they said had changed little over the past 50 years. Those concerns, the authors said, were “in no way a reflection on those with either a physical or mental disability.”
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Twixt Hills Road resident Tom Gulotta said his neighbors had been skeptical because they hadn’t gotten sufficient information about the project. “We welcome this, we just wanted information up front,” he said.
Mary Lu Heinz, a Nesconset homemaker and mother of a 21-year-old son with autism, appealed to that compassion in her own remarks, displaying her son’s high school graduation photograph. Now nearing retirement age, she and her husband worry that in coming years their son will not have a place to call home, she said.
“We’re contemplating our son’s life when we’re gone,” she said. “Where will he go?”