Wheeling village Trustee Dean Argiris had a succinct summation last week for the reason the village board rejected a home for mentally disabled residents this week. "This was the wrong building in the wrong part of town," he said.
Isn't it always?
The Philhaven project, which had been approved by the Wheeling Plan Commission after extensive review and revision to address concerns about drainage and parking, is yet another in a seemingly endless line of facilities envisioned for the mentally disabled that fight their way through suburban regulatory and review commissions only to be ultimately dismissed when elected officials buckle under pressure from residents who apparently live "in the right part of town."
For those who sympathize with the needs of the mentally disabled and their rights to live in clean, safe, respectful neighborhoods, it is hard to resist the temptation to condemn both the village trustees and the residents who pressure them in these situations. But there is a better, if more labor-intensive, answer, and, like it or not, it falls to developers and advocates for the disabled to provide it.
The overriding complaint in all these projects is fear, and people should not be condemned for fearing the destruction or erosion of their neighborhoods. What is needed is demonstration that they have nothing to fear.
That means going beyond official commission meetings and speaking directly to residents in a nonjudgmental way to show how a project can be an asset, not a detriment to the neighborhood. It means operating successful projects in similar neighborhoods and similar towns in such a responsible way that they can be pointed to only as the assets that even Argiris claimed they are. It means responding positively to residents' concerns about parking, traffic, flooding and emergency services. It may mean going to churches and community services programs to reach leaders who might be more predisposed to care for the quality of life of the needy.
It certainly means going to lengths greater than other developments have to go to "in the right part of town," but decades of resistance and experience with projects for the elderly and the disabled have demonstrated there really is no other way.
Argiris described proponents who pleaded with the village to approve Philhaven as making "an emotional argument for a nonemotional question," leaving one to wonder, then what, if not emotion, all that fear and anger was behind opposition to the project.
The fact is, unless they want always to be relegated to "some other part of town than mine," proponents of housing for the disabled must redouble their efforts at the neighborhood level. They must dispel every argument of technology, safety, convenience and fear, leaving irrational prejudice as the only remaining objection.
Hopefully, those who would wield that as a weapon will at least be embarrassed about it, and elected officials will have no problem recognizing it for what it is when determining that any part of town can be "the right part."