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PENNY ZEPLOWITZ, a member of the Amherst Town Board, has noticed something important about group homes.

Neighbors often object when social-service agencies buy a residence with the intention of bringing their clients into a comforting home setting. But once the group home begins to function, the noise dies away and nothing more is heard.

That's because group homes, generally speaking, are not the plague they are sometimes pictured to be. Well-managed, they can even enrich a neighborhood.

While no single community should be saturated with social-service activities, group homes, soup kitchens and clinics, every community -- no matter how pricey -- ought to be welcoming if its share of such facilities shows up someday.

It's particularly disgraceful that a house in Cheshire Lane in an East Amherst subdivision called Foxhunt Farms was spray-painted with graffiti as a nasty welcome to mentally retarded residents. In addition, there were harassing phone calls and inflammatory fliers circulating in the neighborhood.

Group-home opponents say they are as upset as any over the spray-painting, and that's good. It would be even better if they warmly welcomed their new neighbors. A measure of human compassion would be helpful. Mental retardation is not sinful. And it can be visited on families without regard to economic or social standing.

At the other extreme of neighborhoods stands Allentown, a city area known for its mixture of people and tolerance for differences. But Allentown has done its share. Within walking distance of Allentown, there are 61 social-service agencies in operation. Many residents rightly believe their neighborhood is overloaded with society's problems -- that it's someone else's turn.

Several cautions are needed. Social agencies seeking group homes need to be sensitive to neighborhood feelings. They have the law on their side, but it would be the better part of wisdom to offer full and frequent explanations of what they plan in their new setting and even take people to their other facilities to try to convince them no harm lurks there.

Furthermore, everyone needs to recognize that some types of halfway houses and treatment homes have a greater potential to bring nuisances to a neighborhood than, say, homes for the physically disabled and mentally retarded. Neither potential neighbors nor social agencies should assume all facilities are going to have equal impact on a neighborhood.

It would be helpful if Erie County followed the practice in Westchester County by setting up a central information system that could steer social agencies away from saturated communities like Allentown and possibly aid agencies and neighborhoods in finding common ground.

In the end, the basic rule should be that social-service activities ought to be spread among many neighborhoods, not concentrated in a few. Part of it is a matter of fairness. And part of it is a matter of the fortunate's obligation to the unfortunate.

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