Smithtown residents will have an opportunity to speak out about the character of their community Thursday night. It would be wonderful if the message that rings out is one of kindness and acceptance.
Particularly since, according to Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim, messages of outrage, anger and fear will have no effect on the outcome.
Wehrheim and the town board have moved their 7 p.m. meeting from Town Hall to the Eugene Cannataro Senior Citizens Center, because they’re expecting a crowd. They are expecting a crowd because one of the items on the agenda is discussion of a proposed group home for six men with autism and other developmental disabilities in a single-family four-bedroom home on quiet, tree-lined Leslie Lane.
Nearby residents heard about Smithtown-based nonprofit Developmental Disabilities Institute’s plan to buy the home, listed for $529,000, two weeks ago, and that was on purpose, according to Wehrheim.
“What I have done is we now notify residents within a 500-foot radius by sending a letter whenever we get an indication that an agency wants to open a facility like this,” Wehrheim said. “Then we notify the agency and ask them to come to a public town meeting and answer any questions.”
But the point of the notice is not to give neighbors a chance to mount an effective opposition. Wehrheim says the Padavan Law, passed 40 years ago to guarantee that group homes of no more than 14 beds can go where they want unless an area has a concentration of such homes, makes such protests ineffective. The point of the public notice and information session is just to let people ask questions and be heard.
Wehrheim also said the state doesn’t let agencies go ahead with a plan for a new home unless it’s certain the area meets these criteria, so there are rarely grounds to stop them.
But when notice of the Leslie Lane plan was mailed earlier this month, grumbling began. The fears of some neighbors are the same ones that are habitually cited with such facilities: traffic, noise, crime, lower property values and harm to a mythical suburban way of life.
Smithtown has about 30 group homes. According to both Wehrheim and his predecessor, Patrick Vecchio, they operate without much notice or any trouble. But they are nearly always opposed at first.
Earlier this year, neighbors argued unsuccessfully against a similar home on Schuyler Drive in Commack. And the opposition crops up across the Island, for all kinds of facilities. Just last month, Glen Cove decided to drop its appeal of a state court ruling that a residence for people with eating disorders could open in a residential area across from the Nassau Country Club.
To need or not need a facility like this for a loved one is a matter of good luck or bad. But to understand the need, and the right of people with disabilities to live in the same pleasant surroundings most prefer, is a choice. Public comment sessions are often dominated by opponents of whatever is on tap, but it does not have to be that way. Residents could go to Thursday night’s meeting to share different messages:
“You are doing God’s work.”
“Our town has residents with special needs, and it must have welcoming homes for them.”
“I hope that if my children or grandchildren ever have similar needs, they can be served in a community like ours.”
“Let us know if there is ever anything we can do to help.”
The law says these homes must be allowed in neighborhoods. It doesn’t say they must be accepted and supported.
But they could be.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.