After several neighborhood residents urged them, Springfield City Council members voted down a variance request for a group home.
The Volunteers of America, who operate a group for six mentally ill adult men on Deer Road, bought a house on Chestnut Street and asked for a variance to the zoning law there, in order to move their residents to that house. But residents of the neighborhood were adamant in their opposition.
Council members voted 4-0 to deny the variance, with council member Butch Kieffer recusing himself from the discussion and vote.
“I request you decline this,” said Michelle Zipperer. “It’s going to cause chaos and disruption in our life, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
Douglas Exley, who owns two houses in the neighborhood, also called upon council members to turn down the variance request.
“I am against this,” he said. “I do not want this variance granted.”
Anne Moore, attorney for Volunteers of America, which runs the existing group home on Deer Road, stated the organization’s case for the rezoning.
“Our request is for a reasonable accommodation for the people that we serve, who are six mentally ill adults,” she said. “The reason we need caregivers in these homes is they cannot live in a residential neighborhood without supportive services to make sure they take their meds and help them meet heir basic needs. The goal is to integrate them into a basic neighborhood. They’re no different from you or me, except they have a mental illness.”
The neighborhood where the group home wishes to move is zoned R1. Volunteers of America has purchased the home for which they asked the variance. The city’s zoning calls for single-family homes in an R1 district under its permitted uses. Group homes are allowed under R3 zoning, which is a multi-family dwelling district.
Jerri Redding, program manager for the group home, said the six men living in the home now are considered a family and that R3 zoning means boardinghouses.
“In our minds, we are dealing with a family of individuals, five of whom have been living together for five years, some for nine years,” she said. “A family bonded by blood or bond qualifies for R1. In our mind, we are dealing with a family of individuals.”
Moore argued that the city’s zoning could not be used to restrict the group home.
“Zoning should not be used to rule people out and tell them they cannot live in certain neighborhoods,” she said. “It is a federal and it is a state law that you are required to make reasonable accommodations for folks who suffer from certain disabilities and these folks fit that category.
“Zoning is to regulate planned use. What we intend to do is to make this home for six people who are handicapped. They are in a special category. This is a better neighborhood, and they are entitled to live wherever they want to, provided you can make the accommodations for them. They have the right to move around and live where they would like to live.”
But residents and council members countered that the zoning exists to protect the current residents from businesses sprouting up in their neighborhood. The residents of the group home pay to live there, and the Volunteers of America has a business license to operate the group home as a non-profit.
Exley told council members that before he bought his two properties, he checked the zoning to see what would be allowed there.
“Zoning is to protect property owners from encroachment of different types of entities,” he said, “so you know your property values are not going to be affected.”
Exley said he was in favor of such facilities but property zoned for such endeavors already exists. He added the group referred to their group home as a facility during the planning and zoning commission meeting.
“I don’t think any of us call our residence a facility,” he said. “We call our residence a home.”
Wilma Pace asked that if the home was going to be operated as a business, what assurances would there be that another business would not move in under the variance should the group home move.
“Did you take into consideration the zoning that the neighbors had?” council member Charles Hinely asked the Volunteers of America representatives. “Does that mean that those who live there don’t have a say? We’re supposed to look out for the residents of our town.”
Moore said there could be people living with mental illnesses throughout Springfield that other residents aren’t aware of.
“I understand about the mentally challenged,” Exley said. “I’m in favor of having a place for folks like that. But there are properties zoned for that type of institution.”
Why this neighborhood
The organization was leasing the home on Deer Road and was in search of a home to own, said program manager Jerrie Redding.
“We had to find something large enough,” she said. “We looked all over. It wasn’t that we looked specifically in that area.”
Redding said they had to find a house that was close enough to services, a requirement dictated by the state, “so living outside the city limits was not an idea.”
“This is a better neighborhood,” Moore said, “and they are entitled to live wherever they want to, provided you can make the accommodations for them. They have the right to move around and live where they would like to live.”
The owner of the Deer Road home was about to lose his home, Redding explained, and the group has bought that house as well.