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PLANS DROPPED FOR CHRISTEN COURT GROUP HOME

Plans have been dropped for a group home for five mentally disabled teen-agers on Christen Court in the Village of Lancaster, where the so-called "behavioral problems" of the teen-agers stirred neighbors' fears.

However, the problems were never anything more than the young adults sometimes acting like children, United Cerebral Palsy Association of Western New York officials maintained.

The agency this week notified the Lancaster Village Board that, "for several reasons," it won't be purchasing the two-story, four-bedroom home in the southwestern part of the village for $150,000.

The Village Board this month approved a resolution opposing the group home on Christen on the grounds it would mean too many such facilities in the village. Under state law, it is the only grounds on which a municipality may object.

Opponents of the residence claimed there are already seven in the village. United Cerebral Palsy countered that for people with developmental disabilities, there are two, compared to eight and 13 in the towns of Orchard Park and West Seneca, respectively.

Lancaster's objection would have required a state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities commissioner's hearing to resolve. Such hearings can take several months to schedule and complete.

Virginia C. Purcell, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy Association, said a "continued delay in this project would extend the wait for the families who require this type of assistance as soon as possible.

"We feel that the time and cost of a hearing would be better used to advance community education regarding children and adults with disabilities and the benefits to neighbors who include them in their communities.

"It is with genuine sadness that I convey to the parents of the youngsters who were to have occupied the home on Christen Court that they were not welcome by the Village Board. It is my hope that greater public education and personal awareness will someday bring the benefits of an integrated community to the Village of Lancaster," Ms. Purcell wrote in her letter to the Village Board.

The search for another location in Erie County is already under way, said Helen Trowbridge Hanes, director of the agency's housing and residential programs.

Public misunderstanding over the nature of the "behavioral problems" of the home's five would-be occupants was at the core of the controversy, agency officials maintained. This prompted unnecessary neighborhood concerns over the safety and welfare of young children as well as the neighborhood in general, they said.

With emotional and mental development slowed by disability, the teen-agers in question sometimes act like young children and resist doing what they are told, Ms. Hanes explained.

"In our field, the meaning (of behavioral problems) is a lot different than for the person standing on the street corner. To us, it means autism, mental retardation; to some of the neighbors, it meant aggressive, even criminal behavior," she said.

But Jeffrey J. Stribing, trustee in the village's First Ward, said there was more to the dispute than that.

"It's not an easy issue because you're dealing with human life and you try to have some compassion, but three things stood out," he said.

First, the United Cerebral Palsy Association made a "poor" public presentation, "showing a film on cerebral palsy patients, while proposing to place individuals with behavioral problems in this residence," Stribing said.

Second, "the state brags on how much money they're saving in establishing these homes as opposed to maintaining institutions, but they're transferring the burden to local governments." Tax revenues are lost because the properties are taken off the local tax rolls, he noted.

The group home on Christen Court would have cost the village, Town of Lancaster and Lancaster Central School District about $6,000 a year in taxes, Stribing said.

Third, Stribing questioned whether developmentally disabled people with behavior problems should be placed in a community residential environment. "The program has its good points to be sure. However, just as it's true that not everyone with a developmental disability should be secured in an institution, perhaps it's also true that some should remain," he said.

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