It was standing room only Tuesday when the Morgan City Planning Commission unanimously denied a conditional use permit for a residential group home. More than 90 residents crowded the council chambers, where Alpha Counseling and Treatment presented plans for a group home for “disabled youth suffering from autism, Asperger’s syndrome and similar challenges” at 535 Derrick Circle.
Mace Warren, a licensed clinical social worker with Alpha Counseling and Treatment, said the home would house young men with criminal backgrounds as well as underlying disabilities referred by the juvenile court system and the Department of Child and Family Services.
Warren said staff to client ratios would range between 6 to 1 and 3 to 1, depending on the state contract he has yet to secure. The request was for between 12 to 16 clients in the six-bedroom home. Staff who had cleared state-required background checks would be on hand 24 hours a day and always within line of sight and sound, Warren said. At night clients would be subjected to random 15-minute checks.
Warren said the home would be a state-regulated Level 5 Therapuetic home as defined by the Utah Department of Human Services, a step above a foster home. In Level 5, clients’ “crimes are caused by patterns of social and psychological factors that if targeted, the offending would decrease.”
“Bottom line is, these guys, for lack of cognitive and social skills, have committed a crime,” Warren said. “But these are not criminals. They don’t know any better. They have deficits or issues within the home environment that can no longer be treated in the home because of extreme stress or instability in the family system and social competency issues.”
Warren said his facility was going to embrace the “Good Lives Model” of rehabilitation rather than punishing an offender. The home would not be a lock-down institution and clients would be schooled on-site as well as attend individual and group therapy sessions throughout the week. Warren could not offer a lot of specific details, as his company is still working on securing a state contract.
He also said no one with a criminal violent background, substance abuse or sex offense on their record would be allowed as clients at the Morgan facility.
However, residents allowed to speak during the meeting said Alpha’s request as they had previously read it was misrepresentative because it didn’t mention criminal backgrounds—whether violent or non-violent—at all.
“I have a lot of respect for this. I see a huge need,” said Kim Boyer, a health care provider who lives next door to the proposed facility. “But you have totally misrepresented what you are trying to do.”
“I call it a halfway house, but I have been corrected on that,” said Robert Lynam, whose home borders the proposed facility. He said he called the Clearfield Police Department where Alpha runs other similar homes. He said as many as 35 calls came from the homes including attempted suicide, lewdness, criminal mischief, assault, sexual offenses, car theft and run-aways.
“These types of facilities are needed, just not in Morgan,” Lynam said.
“I think emotionally I am tied to what you are doing. I don’t think anyone in this room is against that,” said Planning Commissioner Steve Gale.
Lynam agreed, saying not only does he have an autistic daughter, but he knew of at least four others in the audience with autistic children as well. However, as the father of daughters ages 5 to 12, he is worried about the safety of the neighborhood if the commission approved the facility.
“Right now, my girls have the freedom to go out and play on their own,” Lynam said. “That (facility) will change everything about this community.”
“I did not buy a house here to live in fear,” said Carol Townsend, who lives across the street from the proposed facility and has three sons between the ages of 8 and 12. “The resale values of our homes will go down.”
The planning commission had issues with the number of clients the home would accommodate, the number of vehicles that could fit in the driveway, the limited amount of exterior yard space as a swimming pool takes up a majority of the back yard.
In the end, the commission agreed that the facility didn’t fit the city’s definition of a family living in a single-family residential zone, which allows for up to five unrelated people to live in one home.
“I live within 300 feet of the site, and I am not allowed to run a foster home or rent out my basement,” said resident Monika Ballantyne. “I can’t have 16 unrelated people living in my home.”
Planning Commission Chairman Duane Stock said the applicant had only applied for a residential home for disabled youth, which is allowed under the zoning code. Commissioner Julie Anderson said city code allows residential homes if clients are placed on a voluntary basis. Residents in the audience questioned whether DCFS and court-appointed placements fit the definition of “voluntary.”
“When I took office, I was instructed to protect the code and ordinances of the city as they stand in our books,” said Gale, who made the motion to decline the application consistent with “our history of standing firm on not-gray areas.”
“We have many gray areas on this,” Gale said. “In the past, we’ve struggled but we haven’t bent.”
Stock said he was worried the proposed facility would be detrimental to the health, safety and general welfare of the community.
“We have been hearing of fear of property values going down and the impact on families,” Stock said. “It’s just not going to fit that.”
Warren, son of the homeowner Jeff L. Warren, said he had many calls from area residents prior to his Tuesday presentation.
“If I was in your shoes, I would be angry and concerned, too,” he said. “That is exactly what we need for them: a place with small-town values and a family-oriented environment.”