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updated: 11/6/2012 4:18 PM

Wheaton approves plans for group home for developmentally disabled

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A nonprofit organization has won Wheaton's approval to open a group home for developmentally disabled individuals near downtown, but faces several hurdles to obtain a license to operate a second building included in the project plans.

Wheaton-based STARS Family Services wants to build two housing structures united by a courtyard in two phases on a vacant lot at the southeast corner of Cross Street and Union Avenue. The Wheaton City Council on Monday voted 6-0 to allow construction, with Mayor Michael Gresk recusing himself from the vote.

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Plans for the first building call for six private bedrooms as well as a separate living area on the second floor for the "community builders," envisioned as a couple who will oversee activities each night from 8 p.m. until the next morning. A volunteer or staff person would remain in the home during the day.

The second facility would be similar and, in total, 15 people, including staff, would occupy the two houses.

STARS currently can operate only one of the buildings as group care home under a license authorized by the city's group care home commission. The city council would have to approve changes to Wheaton's zoning and licensing ordinances before the commission could review a license application for a second structure on the site, City Manager Don Rose said.

On Monday, the issue drew roughly a dozen neighbors concerned about the project's scale and impact on local traffic. Supporters say the project provides housing and other services at a time when the state plans to shutter several facilities for the developmentally disabled.

"The pressure is on communities to absorb these populations in existing neighborhoods, and STARS Family Services is attempting to fill that need," STARS President Ray Chase told the council.

STARS opened its first facility, Washington House, for four men on the city's north side in June 2011.

STARS was formed with the goal of providing housing and related services to adults in the STARS Disability Ministry at College Church in Wheaton. The ministry serves more than 100 families in DuPage County. Membership in the church is not a requirement for participation.

Kathy Langlois, a neighbor to the proposed project, praised the "noble" STARS mission, but criticized the project's scope.

"The proposed model of two adjoining homes for up to 15 adults is not in keeping with the character of our neighborhood," said Langlois, reading from a prepared statement. "It's not a proven model by the STARS organization."

A handful of parents of special-needs children spoke in favor of the project, with one Wheaton mother of a 22-year-old daughter fighting back tears.

"Every parent of a special-needs child has a long-range question and concern: 'What will be this child's future,'" said Burt Kettinger, a Wheaton resident for more than 40 years.

Kettinger said the day will come when having his son, B.J., at home "will be too much."

"And the prospect of the STARS home is a very, very positive thing for us," he said.

Councilwoman Jeanne Ives said officials are reviewing the city's zoning ordinance.

"To me it's very inconsistent, and it's a little bit subjective here," Ives said. "The truth is, they (STARS) are fully authorized according to our ordinance to build a very large structure housing up to 15 individuals, including staff."

After the council's vote, Councilman Phil Suess applauded STARS' model.

"Here is a group coming together to put forth a solution that's for the benefit of the community that enables people to continue to live in the community in a way that we would all like to live," he said.

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