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St, Peters woman says city discriminates against developmentally disabled

SUBMITTED PHOTO Georgia Conlon, right, gives her sister Julie flowers after Julie's performance in the musical "Grease," which was adapted for special-needs adults.

Is it possible for a city to cap the number of developmentally disabled adults who can live within its corporate limits?

Georgia Conlon, 58, thinks that's exactly what St. Peters is doing. Over the summer the city refused to allow a new group home on Janis Ann Drive in Ward 1 because an existing group home is within 2,500 feet.

Conlon's sister Julie, who is 47 and developmentally disabled, had planned to move into the residence along with her three older female roommates.

"This is discrimination of a protected class," Conlon says. "I guarantee you that if this was four cheerleaders they would get in line to move them in."

Conlon, of St. Peters, has complained to various state and federal agencies, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.

City Attorney Randy Weber and City Administrator Bill Charnisky say the city has the legal right, based on state law, to set a density restriction. Cities cannot ban group homes from single-family neighborhoods, but can — if they choose — set a density requirement to prevent too many from appearing in the same neighborhood.

What Conlon didn't know is there are municipalities in St. Charles County with even stricter density requirements. In O'Fallon, for example, a group home cannot be within a mile (5,280 feet) of another group home.

Conlon complained to the city of St. Peters that the 2,500-foot requirement means there can only be 28 group homes in the entire city. Each home can have a maximum of eight residents, with two supervisors.

That means there can only be 224 mentally challenged adults in single-family residences operating as group homes in the city.

Julie Powers, the city's director of planning, community and economic development, says the 28 group-home maximum is an approximation.

I reviewed the videotapes of the July 28 and Aug. 25 Board of Aldermen workshops. Weber and Charnisky went to lengths to explain this is not discrimination, going so far as to advise aldermen to stop using the phrase "group homes."

When I look at the tapes three things stand out:

1. The city adopted the 2,500-foot restriction in 2009 not because of a problem or a complaint but because a company that routinely reviews city ordinances pointed out the city could legally add a density restriction if it wanted to do so.

2. Some of the most thoughtful questions were posed by Ward 3 Alderman Gus Elliott, one of Conlon's two representatives. Unfortunately, it seems Elliott is ignored by his fellow aldermen. I'm guessing he lost their trust in 2010 when he decided to secretly tape conversations with Ward 1 aldermen Rocky Reitmeyer and Dave Thomas.

3. Ward 4 Councilman Don Aytes weighed in with this blast-from-the-past: "Back when I was a young person they had farms. These people were much more safer out in the country."

"I was shocked to hear that," says Barbara Griffith, CEO and president of Community Living, who was in the audience. Community Living happens to be located in St. Peters. The organization helps the developmentally disabled.

Griffith commends Conlon for advocating for her sister but says her organization will abide by the 2,500-foot requirement.

"It doesn't mean I like it," she says. "It doesn't mean I agree with it ... At this point we are not interested in fighting City Hall."

The home remodeled for use by Community Living is within 800 feet of an existing group home operated by a different group.

Mitchell Hoffman, a benefactor of Community Living, bought the home out of foreclosure and planned to rent it to Community Living. He knew Conlon's sister would be one of the residents.

Initially, neither Community Living nor Hoffman nor city officials knew there was another group home nearby on South Joyce Ellen Way. That's because the city has no idea where group homes are located, which is a problem it's now trying to solve.

But a resident in the neighborhood knew it. At a July 20 Board of Adjustment meeting it was mentioned that a resident in the neighborhood complained previously about the behavior of one of the adults living at the existing group home.

I asked Powers what that complaint was about.

She said it concerned a developmentally disabled man who was sitting outside at the home and either making too much noise or smoking. There was another complaint about the home in 2010: The grass was too long and a tree branch was hanging too low.

At the Board of Adjustment hearing, the board voted 2-2; Community Living's request for a hardship waiver failed.

"The people in that subdivision were out in force," Griffith says. "They were very, very much against us. From my perspective, people are not informed. They have stereotypes in their minds. 'Not in my backyard. My property values are going to go down.'"

On Monday I called municipalities throughout St. Charles County: The county has a 600-foot requirement and a permit is needed; St. Charles and Lake Saint Louis have no density requirement but a permit is needed; Cottleville and Wentzville have a 2,500-foot requirement; Weldon Spring and Dardenne Prairie have a 5,000-foot requirement; and O'Fallon's is 1 mile.

Conlon and a brother tried caring for Julie for about five years. They called it the "Julie Juggle." It was too difficult.

"Julie takes 26 pills a day. She has an IQ of 62. She has 11 different diagnoses."

But Julie is anything but a detriment or a threat to the community where she lives, Conlon says.

"All they do is make crafts and watch reruns of the Andy Griffith Show," she says. "You would be blessed to have Julie and her roommates as neighbors." She calls her sister "pure love."

I know what some of you are thinking: How would you like it, Pokin, if Julie and her roommates moved to your block?

I shudder to think of it. The empty driveway because they don't drive. All that gardening. All those crafts.

And the horror of people I don't even know getting up in my face and telling me how much they love me.

Steve Pokin is a columnist for the Suburban Journals. He can be reached at spokin@yourjournal.com or by phone at 314-744-5704. His column is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PokinAround.