Community Sentiment Split Over Proposed Valhalla Group Home

Mount Pleasant resident Curtis Au, whose daughter would live in a group home being proposed for Halsey Place in Valhalla, addressed the Town Board last week.

A proposed Valhalla group home for six residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities drew passionate comments from supporters and opponents during an occasionally emotional Mount Pleasant Town Board meeting last Thursday.

YAI/Seeing Beyond Disability is proposing to operate the 4,000-square-foot, five-bedroom single-family house at 5 Halsey Place. Current plans call for YAI to add another bedroom and remove the backyard swimming pool. Sandra Speiser, vice president for the agency, said the young female adults who would move to the home are currently Westchester residents living with their families.

Speiser said YAI, not the state, would own and operate the home. The nonprofit agency provides permanent housing for more than 700 people, including 136 in Westchester, she said. Residents have autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

“They’re looking to move on to the next phase of their lives,” Speiser said.

YAI, established more than 60 years ago, would seek a property tax exemption that would cost the town and school district $17,000 a year, Speiser said.

Town Attorney Darius Chafizadeh said the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities has recommended the group home proposal. Under state law, the Town Board may approve the recommendation or look to challenge the plan based on a saturation of similar facilities in the area.

Attorney Michael Grace, speaking on behalf of some of the neighboring Halsey Place residents, said many have expressed concerns about the project.

He said municipalities can “go broke” if they have an excessive number of properties that are exempt from taxes. Mount Pleasant has exceeded its responsibilities of hosting nonprofit facilities, he contended.

Grace called for there to be more time to provide information to residents about its proposal and allow residents to express their concerns aside from one meeting. Residents have proposed alternative sites for YAI to consider. The 40-day state-imposed deadline for the town to make a decision should be extended, Grace said. YAI submitted its letter of intent to the town, which started the clock, in November.

“The time frame has been an issue for us,” Supervisor Carl Fulgenzi stated. “We did not have a lot of time to digest this.”

Michael Carey, who identified himself as a civil rights and disability rights advocate and founder of the Jonathan Carey Foundation, named after his son who had autism, said the public should be informed about “the dangers of these facilities.” His son was killed by a state employee in a residential care facility.

Incidents of abuse and neglect are self-reported by mental health facilities and group homes, which do not provide an accurate picture of the problems, Carey charged. He said the top cause of death among group home residents with developmental disabilities is staff failing to call 911 in time for someone in medical distress.

According to an investigation done by his foundation on some of the group homes in the state, there have been 80 convicted Level Two and Level Three sex offenders who have worked in group homes.

All YAI staff must submit to criminal background checks, Speiser said.

Kathy Schiau, a member of the YAI Hudson Valley Board of Directors, told Carey that YAI uses the video he made about his son’s death as part of its mandatory staff training. If a staff person provides a resident with medication late it can be reported as abuse, Schiau said.

No YAI resident has died as the result of actions by a staff member, she noted.

Curtis Au, whose 23-year-old daughter, Emily, would be one of the residents, said it’s challenging when these young adults try to exercise independence but require support from others in the community.

“I came here because this is good news. This is a wonderful opportunity for this community to have a home,” Au said. “We’re talking here tonight about one single home. Please keep that in mind. That home is going to be where these young ladies will live together; they will grow old together, God willing. And they will be part of this community.”

Former Mount Pleasant Councilman Denis McCarthy said Carey’s work has changed the residential treatment model for the better. However, group homes such as the one proposed by YAI are not residential treatment facilities similar to the embattled Cottage School or Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, he said.

Negative tax impact fails to qualify as a reason for the state to deny a group home application, McCarthy said, and there isn’t an over-saturation of facilities in town similar to the one YAI is proposing.

“There is a lot of misinformation,” he said. “What I see happening in the social media world is a divided community and I think this is a great community.”

Councilwoman-elect Francesca Hagadus-McHale said the YAI facility on Brentwood Drive in Pleasantville, the same street where she lives, has posed no difficulties.

“They have been my neighbors for 15 years,” she said. “My property values have increased.”

While Fulgenzi said the Town Board would continue to discuss the plan following last week’s discussion, he read a statement that tried to temper previous comments he made regarding the proposal. However, he again raised the tax challenges facing Mount Pleasant.

“We are home to many facilities like the one being presented,” Fulgenzi said. “I admit my initial focus was not on the individuals slated to be living in the proposed home or their needs. I was mainly thinking of our community collectively and how another tax-exempt property could impact our tax base. Individually, one home does not make a significant impact. It is the over 30 percent of the properties in the Town of Mount Pleasant already tax-exempt added to.”

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