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updated: 1/25/2013 12:42 PM

Wheaton eyes requirements for group-care homes

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A nonprofit organization is pressing Wheaton to change its requirements for group-care homes, prompting a backlash from some neighbors.

Wheaton-based STARS Family Services already has obtained city council approval for a special-use permit to build a group home to house developmentally disabled adults as part of a planned unit development at the southeast corner of Cross Street and Union Avenue. STARS wants to construct two housing structures united by a courtyard in two phases.

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But the license for the project authorized by the city's group home commission would allow only one of the two buildings to be operated as a group home.

Officials say the panel cannot issue a license for the second proposed structure because of what appears to be conflicting provisions in the city's zoning ordinances. Without a zoning amendment, a building permit could not be issued for the second building, city attorney Brad Pollock said.

As a result, STARS is seeking zoning revisions that would allow for licensing of a group care home with up to two structures on a single lot operated by a single organization if the licensing is approved by the group care home commission and the project has city approval as a planned unit development. The revisions would not change the number of residents allowed in such a development.

The city's planning and zoning board voted 5-2 Wednesday to recommend the city council approve the changes.

The meeting drew neighbors who continued to support a smaller design model for group-care homes in residential neighborhoods.

"Small group homes present a much-needed alternative to traditional institutional care," said Kathy Langlois, who has opposed the STARS project. "With our shrinking government over time and our aging population, we have a responsibility to take care of special-needs members of our community. However, we must also take great care to do so within our existing zoning ordinances in order to protect the character and safety of our broader community."

The proposal also touched off a broader debate about group homes in the city, with some residents voicing fears about the volume of police calls to the facilities.

A Daily Herald series earlier this month reported that, with some major exceptions, most group homes don't generate a significant increase in police or fire calls.

Neighbors of now-shuttered group homes housing people with mental illness on Wood Street cited experiences with one resident who displayed "violent" behavior. Others questioned what safety measures the city could put in place.

But city officials were quick to point out that zoning ordinances cannot be written in such a way that discriminates against the disabled.

"You're making an assumption that somebody would pose a threat to you," said Patricia Schwarze, who sits on the planning and zoning board and group care home commission.

Meanwhile, plans for the first STARS 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.

In total, 15 people, including staff, would occupy the two houses, David Bea, an attorney for STARS who lives in Wheaton, said. Most residents of the proposed home would have Down syndrome and work outside the home during the day, Bea said.

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.

The city council will review the proposed zoning amendment Feb. 19.

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