State Politics

Parents raising kids with special needs want zoning law rescinded

TALLAHASSEE — Parents of developmentally disabled children from Pasco, Leon and Broward County had an idea they thought would help their kids: create new subdivisions that would serve as safe havens for special needs people to live, eat, dine and play.

But an existing law prevents special-needs homes from being established within 1,000 feet of each other, so the parents began lobbying lawmakers to rescind it. The parents hope to clear the way for a cluster of communities catering to those with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

A bill to rescind the 1,000-foot law has passed in the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House. And it is triggering discussion of a larger question that advocates for the disabled have struggled with for decades: How best to integrate those with special needs into society?

Some warn that creating separate communities only ends up segregating those who are different.

“In our society, we call places like this institutions,” said Kingsley Ross, who represents Sunrise community, a nonprofit organization catering to the developmentally disabled and the elderly. “People with developmental disabilities have to be in contact with good models of behavior. If you surround them with people that don’t have normal types of behavior, what we are going to see is more people with bad behavior.”

Others argue that the communities would give those with special needs a chance to be with people and families like them. Living among those who don’t understand their situation sometimes leads to the disabled to being ostracized, harassed or assaulted, said Bill Sammons, president of the nonprofit group, Noah’s Ark, in Central Florida.

Sammons, the father of a 24-year-old with autism, has seen the difficulties of his boy, Drew, as he tries to stay safe.

“He can name, maybe, every road in Florida,” Sammons said. “But then he won’t look both ways crossing the street.”

About four years ago, Noah’s Ark won approval from the city of Lakeland to build a 56-acre community that would be home to 200 special needs residents and 40 family members.

“He would have more freedom in the gated community,” Sammons said.

The subdivision, dubbed Noah’s Landing, would have a communal dining room for socializing and pedestrian walkways between houses, so residents could cross the street without fear. It would be a mix of single-family homes, apartment units and group homes.

The group homes were the flashpoint. Afraid that homes catering to addicts and the developmentally delayed would drive down property values, the state Legislature ruled that the homes could not be within 1,000 feet of one another.

Rep. Kelli Stargel, the Republican who represents Lakeland, introduced the new legislation which would allow local governments to make exceptions for group homes to be within 1,000 feet of each other.

The lawmaker had learned there were other communities planned from Duval to Broward counties that would cater to the developmentally disabled and might have such group homes in them.

“This is trying to establish a neighborhood, if you will, that would be conducive to people who are developmentally disabled, similar to a 55-plus community,” said Stargel.