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Board votes against UPARC home

East Lake residents tell the county's Board of Adjustment that a 10-bed group home doesn't belong in a Keystone Road neighborhood.

A 10-bed group home for developmentally disabled adults cannot open in a Keystone Road neighborhood, a county board decided Wednesday.

The Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens had hoped to build a 4,000-square-foot home on the southeast corner of George Street and Keystone Road, about 1 mile west of East Lake Road.

Residents objected to the project, saying their neighborhood was no place for a group home that would serve as a nursing home and rehabilitation center for older UPARC clients.

The county's Board of Adjustment, down one member Wednesday, voted 2-2 on the project. Although the vote appears to be a tie, a request needs at least three votes to succeed even when the five-member board is missing a person.

"Now we'll just have to regroup and figure out what our options are," Tom Buckley, UPARC's executive director, said after the meeting.

UPARC expected to bring its request to the Board of Adjustment in July but delayed its presentation a month while waiting for site plans to be finished. It planned to buy the George Street property only if the county approved the group home.

But UPARC's contract to buy the land was up on July 30 and the owners refused to extend the time period, Buckley said. So, UPARC took a chance and bought the land Friday. Now the organization must decide what to do with it.

UPARC does not need the county's permission to open a six-bed group home in a residential neighborhood. But the need is great enough to support a 10-bed facility, Buckley said.

"We are in a crisis state," Buckley told the Board of Adjustment. "We presently have . . . a 20-year wait for people with developmental disabilities to get into UPARC group homes."

UPARC operates 24 group homes in north Pinellas, Buckley said.

Two of those homes provide space for about 18 older clients. But those homes were not designed to accommodate all the special needs that elderly residents might have, Buckley said.

The home UPARC planned to build in East Lake would have included special lighting to help older clients see, non-slip surfaces for walking and other features that typical nursing homes have, he said. The facility was supposed to look like other homes in the area.

Marge Blankman, whose daughter, Teri, is 43 and living in a UPARC group home, spoke on behalf of the organization's efforts to open a facility for older clients.

"I am very concerned about her future," Blankman said. "We have a burial plot for her. She's in the group home. But what's in between?"

Residents of George Street and Keystone Road said they had high regard for UPARC, but they did not want the group home built in their neighborhood.

"We're not prejudiced against UPARC. It's got nothing to do with UPARC. It has everything to do with the quality of life in that neighborhood," said Merry Jane Dey, who lives and rents out property on George Street. "I'm afraid I won't be able to rent my rental place out if they know this is here. I know they have their rights, but we have our rights too."

Traffic from visitors, activity vans and delivery trucks would disturb homeowners, said Ferrell Vaughn, who has lived on Keystone Road for 20 years. She also worried about the group home's residents becoming aggressive or violent.

"Neighbors in a residential area will never have a decent night's sleep again," she said.

Residents also pointed out that a church across the street from UPARC's property already has a 20-bed assisted living facility. Group homes in Pinellas County are supposed to be at least 1,200 feet from each other, but UPARC's home would be 800 feet from the church.

County planners did not object to that because the two homes would have been separated by busy Keystone Road.

But residents said they were tired of so many non-residential structures popping up near their homes. Keystone Road is home to several churches, and a convenience store stands on the southwest corner of George Street and Keystone Road.

"I think we have enough commercial places on Keystone Road," said Maxwell Dey. "You've given us more than our share."

Several residents asked board member R. Michael McCain to abstain from voting after he revealed that his daughter, Christy, had been cared for by UPARC 30 years ago.

"They taught her to feed herself. I don't like to hear anybody blast them," McCain said early in the meeting. "They looked after my little girl for a long time."

McCain said he did not have a conflict and voted in favor of the UPARC facility with board member Joe Mangus. Board members Mary Ellen Wilson and James Gillespie voted against the group home.

"I just feel a bit uncomfortable with the mix we've got there," Gillespie said.