Next spring’s projected opening of a respite facility for developmentally disabled children in the Town of Tonawanda is eagerly anticipated by their parents and caregivers, as evidenced by a growing waiting list.
But neighbors don’t share that enthusiasm and have organized to fight it.
Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled, a nonprofit organization that serves people with developmental disabilities and their families, recently paid full price for a 2,800-square-foot 1960s colonial at 52 Dixon Drive, which was listed at $194,999.
A three-hour after-school program on weekdays and overnight stays will be offered in the four-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
“Without even having advertised this program, we have 70 kids on a wait list,” said Kari Heigl, director of funding and development for the organization.
The overnight respite care program would be the first of its kind in the Buffalo metropolitan area. “This area is even more underserved than the suburbs,” Heigl said.
A $200,000 grant from The Children’s Guild Foundation, via a bequest from Mildred M. Seegler, paid for the property. Additional grants are being sought, with parents of developmentally disabled children lending their support to the effort.
A woman whose daughter has autism spectrum disorders wrote to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism on behalf of another Community Services application. She spoke of how her daughter’s participation in the existing respite program gives her and her husband an opportunity to re-energize.
“But what really excites me and keeps me going is the fact that an overnight respite is in our future,” she wrote. “This changes our outlook from giving up to hanging in there.”
That sense of anticipation isn’t shared by residents of the surrounding neighborhood, however.
Twenty-one of them signed a petition to block it, and many attended the past two Tonawanda Town Board meetings, urging lawmakers to do the same.
“The ... residential loop will be significantly compromised if this residence were to be converted to a business. The sheer volume of traffic alone compromises our quiet neighborhood,” states a letter to the Town Board accompanying the petition.
“Obviously, there’s going to be more traffic than when an elderly couple lived there. We try to minimize it as much as possible,” Heigl responded, noting that the driveway will hold five vehicles.
The new use isn’t considered a business; the property will retain its residential zoning.
The loss of property tax revenue also was cited by residents. According to public records, the town, county and school taxes for 52 Dixon totaled $5,975 in 2012.
Residents also said a plan to fence the property, a corner lot with a large front yard, would “make the property appear institutionalized.” But Heigl said the agency would seek to enclose only a portion of the side yard – along Fountain Park – to install playground equipment.
Town of Tonawanda officials looked at their options after learning about the proposal.
“The only legal basis that you have to not accept it and request a hearing is if there are too many of these homes in a particular neighborhood that would alter the character of the neighborhood,” said Town Attorney John J. Flynn. “We didn’t have that, obviously.”
The town did send the agency a letter suggesting alternative sites, Flynn said.
“They have come back with legitimate reasons why they are not acceptable,” Flynn said, including the commercial settings, purchase and renovation costs, and lack of green space.
The town has until Wednesday to request a commissioner’s hearing on the site issue.
Before the home can open for respite care, possibly in March, renovations are needed to make it wheelchair-accessible – including creating a first-floor bedroom and bath, Heigl said.
The after-school program, for teenagers transitioning to adult living situations, will feature training in job skills and housekeeping. It will be open to a maximum of six people, with a staffing ration of 1 to 3.
Overnight care, for children 18 and younger, initially will be offered for two children, but eventually will be expanded to accommodate four. Staffing will be determined by the child’s needs.
As for putting the residents at ease, Heigl said: “It’s kind of human nature to be a little bit afraid of what you don’t know.” She’s available to answer questions at Kheigl@csdd.net or 883-8888, Ext. 186.