Barb Griffith wants St. Charles residents to know people with disabilities are no different from anyone else—they just want to enjoy their homes and socialize with friends.
"We want to be good neighbors and we want to promote people that live in their community," said Griffith, CEO of St. Peters-based Community Living.
In the future, a group of people with disabilities will be able to move into a house in a St. Charles neighborhood without having to get special conditional use permit.
St. Charles City Council voted on Tuesday to change the city zoning codes to allow "group homes" in the city as a permitted use, meaning they wouldn't have to appear before the city council.
It's a change long sought by organizations that provide support to people with disabilities.
Leaders of these organizations say many cities have laws that violate federal statutes requiring cities to treat "group homes" in the same way that single family homes are treated.
Bruce Evans, director of community development said city staff had been studying the issue for a long time, although the proposal to change the city laws came from the council.
"The state statute says we have to treat a group home like any other home," he said. "Putting them through a conditional use permit sets them apart. We're not sure we're in compliance with law on that."
Group home would be subject to the same rules and regulations as all other single family homes, including keeping up the property, Evans said.
Groups push for law change
The St. Charles County Coalition of Service Providers, a group of agencies who provide services to people with disabilities, has been lobbying local cities to make similar changes to their laws.
The new model of support for people with disabilities is for them to live in homes in the community and receive support from outside groups, rather than live in a large institution.
But service organizations have to navigate a variety of different codes in different cities to get approval for the group homes.
"Every single municipality has a variety of different ordinances and it's keeping up with the different rules and regulations of each municipality," Griffith said.
Other cities in St. Charles County have passed “density” requirements, banning group homes from locating within a certain number of feet from one another.
- In St. Peters, group homes must be 2,500 feet from one another, a law that prevented Community Living from setting up a home for several people in 2011.
- Wentzville also has a law limiting the homes from being within 2,500 feet of one another.
- In Lake Saint Louis, the city attorney advised council members they had to approve a special use permit for a group home, over objections from neighbors, or else they'd be in violation of state laws.
- Lake Saint Louis requires a special permit for a group home and limits homes from being within 1,000 feet of one another.
David Kramer, chief operating officer at Emmaus Homes, said the general belief in the industry is that laws which limit the number of group homes in an area or subject them to special use permits fly in the face of the Fair Housing Act, a law passed to prevent housing discrimination.
But local laws are changing. Last year, O'Fallon got rid of a conditional use permit for group homes and lowered density requirements from 1 mile between group homes to 500 feet between group homes.
"They're recognizing the need to update their ordinances to be inclusive of people with disabilities," Kramer said.
The Coalition spoke to a group of community development directors in St. Charles County and worked to educate them on the law. The group has decided to push change through education rather than be adversarial.
That includes meeting with people in neighborhoods which a group of people with disabilities will live.
"A lot of it is fear of the unknown," Griffith said. "I certainly understand that. If you don't know, if you've never met someone with a disability, you don't know what kind of disability they have, you just don't know."