As the Belleville City Council weighs the rights of disabled residents to live in a group home versus the concerns of homeowners in that same subdivision, aldermen also are considering the legal consequences of their actions.
The council on Monday tabled a request by TDL Group for a special-use permit to use 212 Turning Leaf Circle as a home for four adults with intellectual disabilities.
Aldermen plan to take up the issue on Aug. 18 after residents of Green Mount Manor subdivision have a chance to meet with providers of the Community Integrated Living Arrangement for voluntary mediation.
Homeowners in the subdivision in Ward 7 expressed various concerns over safety, property values and the CILA provider's credibility.
During the Monday meeting, an alderman asked for legal guidance on the issue.
"I would like to know the legal ramifications for the council, for the city if we yay or nay on this type of thing," Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson said. "What are our responsibilities?"
In response, City Attorney Garrett Hoerner said he would recommend that the council discuss that type of analysis in executive session.
Mayor Mark Eckert said Wednesday the council and most residents understand that the council has to be fair and follow the law, such as the Fair Housing Act.
"The city attorney tried the other night to allude to the law without trying to scare or threaten people, and the council members have to think about it," Eckert said. "Recent cases do tell us about having to be fair."
Eckert was referring to a federal lawsuit settled for $50,000 in January after the Hecker Village Board denied plans to build two four-person group homes for the developmentally disabled.
St. Louis-based attorney Tom Kennedy III represented the nonprofit groups that filed a lawsuit alleging Hecker violated federal laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled people.
Kennedy represented TDL Group on Monday at the Belleville council meeting.
The council's decision to postpone their vote will affect TDL Group's agreement with the state to downsize its Belle Manor location in Belleville from 16 residents to eight, Kennedy said.
Kennedy asked the council to make "reasonable accommodations" to the city's codes for TDL Group if the council decides not to approve the special permit.
Under the Fair Housing Act, the council must make an exception whenever necessary to give people with disabilities an equal chance to use a property, according to a joint statement by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"With Homeowners Associations, there are these restrictive covenants and they say things like a home has to be single-family residence and it can't be a business," Kennedy said. "But disabled people are protected by the Fair Housing Act and if the council or Homeowners Association was to prevent disabled people from living in a home, they would be against the Fair Housing Act."
Federal law trumps Homeowners Association covenants, which in the past could discriminate against Jewish people, black people and others, Kennedy said.
TDL Group does plan to comply with the Homeowners Association's requirements on property maintenance and other aesthetics.
The Green Mount Manor Homeowners Association did not return calls for comment.
Kennedy said his disabled clients are being treated much better today than in years past.
In 1996, St. Clair County residents and officials fought in federal court a company that needed a permit to open a group home at 3013 Carlyle Ave. and to expand a group home at 66 Fenwood Drive in Belleville from three residents to four.
Kennedy is hopeful that mediation will help alleviate residents' concerns about the group home and the council will approve the permit, and it won't be necessary to sue.
Last month, the Belleville Zoning Board of Appeals had unanimously recommended the council approve the special use permit.
"In the old days, that never would have happened," Kennedy said. "It's really a new day."
Kennedy said his clients, like people who are not disabled, simply want to live in the community. TDL Group chose the Green Mount Manor subdivision probably for the same qualities as its current residents, he added.
"If you're looking for a single-family residence, you just find the best home in the best area at a price you can afford," Kennedy said. "TDL is also looking for a home that is convenient for the residents and their activities."
One of the residents who plan to move from Belle Manor on B Street into the group home in the subdivision is a man in his 40s with Down syndrome. He takes public transportation to his job at McDonald's in O'Fallon and is a Special Olympics athlete.
Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc of Illinois, said the metro-east will likely see more and more group homes as part of a state and national trend toward moving people with disabilities into small community living.
"And that's a good thing," Paulauski said. "We would look for a greater variety of group homes beyond the four-person situation utilized a lot now, such as two-person or single-person homes."
The Arc of Illinois is a public policy group that advocates on the behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Paulauski said disabled residents see a health and quality of life improvement living in smaller groups and in homes integrated in the community.
Paulauski supports the closing of state institutions for people with development disabilities like the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia because he favors smaller group homes like CILA homes.
There are at least 73 CILA homes in St. Clair and Madison counties, including 26 in Belleville alone, according to Jane Nesbit, executive director of the Developmental Disability Service of Metro East.
About 400 disabled residents are served in these group homes operated by 30 different entities, such as TDL Group.
A federal judge has ruled that the state can close the Murray Center, which has about 225 residents.
The state has argued that closing institutions and placing residents in group homes will save the state about $100,000 per person per year. And, the state would save $22.7 million without funding the Murray Center and the Jacksonville Developmental Center, which has closed.
Belleville resident Monica Sobczak has two sisters living in the Murray Center and is part of the Murray Parent Association advocating to keep the center open.
Sobczak said her sisters both have behavioral disabilities that would make them ill-suited for life in a group home in a community, especially if it means less quality care.
Sobczak said TDL Group, formerly JJR Enterprises, has a good reputation and history, but that is not the case for all group home providers.
Because of this, Sobczak said the public shouldn't be so quick to criticize Green Mount Manor subdivision residents for having concerns and asking questions.
Homeowners are rightfully concerned about who their neighbors are and also have a duty as taxpayers to inquire about background checks for both staff and residents, Sobczak said.
If disabled residents are not compatible or if group home staff are inadequate, it could lead to harm for all involved, including neighbors, Sobczak said. She also urged city leaders to be more thorough with applicants because a group home with issues could require more police response and cost the city money.
"TDL Group is good because they own their group homes and they employ their own staff, and they care if their residents get along with each other," Sobczak said. "But neighbors need to know what things to watch for and properly report issues."