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Response to group homes is mixed

Some neighbors are won over. Some are not. Either way, UPARC is committed to opening homes to keep its clients out of institutions.

When residents of Alhambra Court just off Curlew Road learned that a group home for developmentally disabled people would be opening on their street, they worried.

Would the home look like others in the Spanish Pines neighborhood or would it resemble a clinic? Would its presence reduce property values? Would the homeowner, the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens, be a good neighbor?

Three years later, those worries have faded.

The home looks like the others, neighbors say. Property along that street is still selling well. And the UPARC employees and clients are friendly.

"Our homeowners association had concerns, but I promise you they have been wonderful neighbors," said next-door neighbor Wendy Campbell. "They have open houses at Christmas time. When they're out, they're just regular people. My kids sell Girl Scout cookies to them. We have not had the first problem."

Residents along Josephine Road in Largo are not as satisfied with the group home that opened on their street the same year.

Neighbors complain that the UPARC clients and employees are noisy, that employees drive too quickly down the unpaved road and that the house is not kept up as well as it should be. They say they resent having a business in their neighborhood.

"They took that house and institutionalized it," said neighbor Dolores Wallace. "It's not a house. It's an institution."

UPARC executive director Tom Buckley is used to opposition from homeowners who do not want to share their neighborhoods with group homes. Some, like those in Spanish Pines, are eventually won over. Others, like the residents along Josephine Road, are not.

Regardless, the organization continues to buy property in communities throughout mid- and North Pinellas, believing that the best place for its clients is in a home in a neighborhood, not in an institution.

Sometimes those efforts are blocked. In 1987, a Palm Harbor couple successfully sued UPARC to prevent the organization from opening a 10-bed group home on Birdie Lane. The couple claimed that the operation would violate deed restrictions there.

UPARC suffered another setback last week when the county refused to allow it to build and operate a 10-bed group home on George Street in East Lake. The home would have been for older developmentally disabled adults.

The organization does not need permission to open a group home for six people, but anything larger needs county approval.

Homeowners along George Street fought UPARC's proposal, insisting that their neighborhood was no place for a group home. The concerns they expressed were similar to those of their counterparts in Palm Harbor and Largo: What kind of traffic would the facility bring? Would it devalue their properties?

One woman, whose sister was injured by a developmentally disabled patient she was caring for, worried the UPARC residents might become aggressive.

UPARC's board of directors will meet Tuesday and decide what to do with the George Street property, Buckley said. They could open a six-bed facility there or sell the land and find another place to open a 10-bed home.

"There are going to be people that do not care for, nor want to live around nor be near people who are mentally retarded. We just accept that," Buckley said. "That doesn't mean that people with developmental disabilities don't have the right or shouldn't have the opportunity to live in that neighborhood."

UPARC opened its first group home in 1978 on Ridgelane Road in Clearwater. Today, it operates 20 group homes in mid- and North Pinellas neighborhoods: seven in Dunedin, five in Clearwater, four in Largo, three in Palm Harbor and one in Safety Harbor. It also runs an apartment complex in Clearwater and a group home in New Port Richey.

Residents receive 24-hour care in those homes while living semi-independent lives. Many work or go to school during the day. They pray at local churches, shop at nearby stores and attend neighborhood functions.

"They'll have friends. They'll go to local community churches and truly just be part of a community like anybody else," Buckley said. "The ultimate benefit is they can live a life with dignity and respect."

Wallace, who lives next door to the group home on Josephine Road in Largo, questions that theory.

UPARC spent $200,000 to buy the home for its six residents, but they do not interact much with others or seem to benefit from being in the neighborhood, she said. Furthermore, Wallace and her neighbors said the home does not look as nice as others on the street and is bringing down the resale values of other properties.

UPARC should use the money it spends on homes in North Pinellas to build a larger facility for all its developmentally disabled clients, she said.

"They could build a complex out in the woods where they could have a lot of space to run off negative energy," Wallace said. "It's really wrong to keep those children in homes in neighborhoods where they are not wanted. These children aren't getting a fair shot at life.

"What does this accomplish? This does not accomplish a thing except resentment."

Residents said they also worry about their safety. A 16-year-old UPARC client was charged 2{ years ago with setting fire to the Josephine Road group home and a nearby retirement center.

Largo resident Stephen Miller said sheriff's deputies visit the group home for developmentally disabled teens next to him on Danbury Way about once a month.

"We had a situation the other evening. I come home and I can't get to my driveway because there's six sheriff's cars there," Miller said. "I would prefer not to have those things happen next door. If I had my choice, I'd prefer it not be there, but I understand the need."

UPARC's residents are representative of the general population, Buckley said. Some get into trouble from time to time. But they are well-supervised by trained employees who undergo background checks, he said.

Mary Dunn has lived on Long Street in Clearwater for 35 years. She said she never gave it a second thought when she heard that UPARC was creating a group home next door to her. She has not had any reason to become concerned in the year since the group home opened, she said.

"They're fine neighbors as far as I'm concerned," Dunn said. "They seem very nice. To me, I'd just as soon have them living out there as anyone else. We have to give people a chance to prove themselves."

Bonnie Belle Hughes of Clearwater said she was thrilled to learn that the home being built across the street from her in 1996 belonged to UPARC. The developmentally disabled adults who live there now are some of the friendliest neighbors she has ever had, Hughes said.

"When they see me out cutting the grass, they offer to help me. Of course I tell them no _ I'm very independent," said Hughes, who has lived in her Lakeview Road home for four years. "They offer to help me bring my garbage can in. They're very cordial and pleasant to be around. If they wanted to put another (group home) down the street, I'd say yes, praise God, that's a good idea."

Hughes said she attends church with some of the group home residents and shares neighborhood news with them almost daily. She feels as if they look out for her, she said.

"They do the best they can. They want to be respected and they should be," Hughes said. "A lot of people are negative because they don't understand. They don't know what to expect, and they fear the unexpected. It's been very positive for us."

Hughes' enthusiasm is shared by the residents of the Lakeview Road group home. Bruce Lauterbach, 65, says some of his neighbors are "a little nutty," but he likes being able to ride his bicycle up and down Lakeview and grow tomato and strawberry plants in the back yard.

Florida is certainly no Long Island, says group home resident and New York native Stuart Katzman, 43. But the UPARC home keeps him close to his job at a nearby Taco Bell.

Teri Blankman, 43, said she waited several years to get a spot in the group home across the street from Hughes. She spends a lot of time volunteering with the American Red Cross, bowling and going to movies, but she said she enjoys coming home.

"Oh yeah. I love it here," Blankman said.

Although the Pinellas community in general is very supportive of UPARC, warm welcomes like the one Hughes gave the Lakeview Road group home are rare, Buckley said. People unfamiliar with the developmentally disabled fear them or feel uncomfortable around them, he said.

UPARC has a 20-year waiting list for people who want to move into a group home in upper Pinellas. Despite some resistance from residents, the organization is committed to opening as many group homes as it takes to allow its clients to experience community life, Buckley said.

"You expect opposition, I guess, and get used to it. You prepare for it. What I don't think you can ever prepare for is when people have issues and publicly feel that mentally retarded people don't belong in neighborhoods," he said.

"To say things like that about people we spend every day with . . . it's just devastating. It's just so upsetting," he said. "Some of the nicest people I've met in life are the mentally retarded we have here."