plan commissioners were on board with a plan to bring an Easter Seals group home to the village, but their vote in favor of the proposal drew the ire of some residents who turned out to an Aug. 21 public hearing.
A few homeowners expressed disapproval as they left the boardroom following the commission’s 5-0 vote — including an older man who raised his middle finger at commissioners as he departed.
But most residents, many of whom live in the Heritage Meadows subdivision, were more measured in their reaction to Easter Seals’ plan to bring a group home to 24212 W. Apple Tree Lane.
The house, purchased by Easter Seals Joliet Region after it went into foreclosure, would provide a residence for six men between the ages of 34 and 57, all with varying degrees of cognitive disabilities. Two of the men are also blind, two are hearing impaired and one is in a wheelchair, according to Easter Seals Joliet Region President and CEO Debra Condotti.
Easter Seals serves people with disabilities and special needs, working to ensure they have “equal opportunities to live, learning, work and play in their communities.”
Planner Jonathan Proulx said the Fair Housing amendment to the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on disabilities or familial status.
Currently, there are two other group homes in residential neighborhoods in Plainfield, Proulx said, adding he cannot recall any issues or complaints from residents living adjacent to the homes
Condotti presented Easter Seals’ request for a special use permit for the home, which would be subject not only to local fire code and ordinances, but also federal and state requirements.
Condotti said caregivers, who are on duty 24 hours a day at Easter Seals’ group homes, face “stringent” training and certification requirements.
Some Heritage Meadows residents expressed concerns about the group home, citing safety issues. Several objected to a proposal that would convert the basement into bedrooms, saying it could post a fire hazard for residents.
Apple Tree Lane resident Tiffanie Sperling also said she believes renovations were started on the home before building permits were issued.
“I do not see how six adults and caregivers can possibly live there comfortably,” she said. “I just don’t feel they’ve done their due diligence.”
Some residents questioned whether the presence of a group home would drive down property values, while others expressed fears over the neighborhood’s safety.
“I am concerned about the safety and well-being of my three children,” said mom Amanda Czerwinski, noting her house is right next door to the proposed group home.
“If you had six people living next to your house and two little girls, how would you feel?” Czerwinski added, asking whether the residence could house people with psychiatric or behavioral problems.
Condotti said Easter Seals serves individuals with developmental challenges, not psychiatric issues.
“Easter Seals is not licensed to serve mentally ill people,” she said.
Condotti also responded to questions whether the group home could one day change hands to serve another purpose, such as becoming a halfway house for former prisoners or a home for recovering addicts. Easter Seals' special use permit would be non-transferrable, she said.
Apple Tree Lane resident Jake Chippas said some of the residents’ concern comes from a sense of uncertainty.
“Right now, a lot of this is fear of the unknown,” he said, asking whether Easter Seals could work to communicate with residents about what they can expect.
But not everyone who spoke up during the Aug. 21 public hearing was there to voice opposition.
Heritage Meadows resident Krista Powley said she found out about the meeting on Facebook and showed up to support the group home.
“I have a son with a disability and every day I wake up and wonder, am I going to make enough money when I’m dead to take care of him?” she said, adding disabled individuals with no one to care for them can spend decades on waiting lists before getting into a home.
“[My son] is going to grow up here. If something happens to us, he’s going to want to stay here,” Powley said, adding people need to become educated about disabilities.
“It’s scary when somebody doesn’t look like you,” she said. “It’s scary when somebody doesn’t act like you … I welcome [the group home].”
Todd Funk admitted he doesn’t live near Heritage Meadows, but said he felt the need to voice his support.
Born with cerebral palsy, Funk said he benefitted from Easter Seals as a child.
“It’s some of the greatest staff and some of the greatest people that you’ll ever meet,” he said, adding the same goes for Easter Seals clients.
“I interacted with all the kids every day,” he said. “I’m 23 and they’re still affecting me … If you let them into your community, these are people that will really enrich your lives. It’s really an experience nobody should pass on.”
Chuck Corkery, former Heritage Meadows Homeowners Association president, called the plan “commendable.”
“It’s better than an empty unit,” he said. “Does that affect property value? Absolutely. I think this is a great idea.”
‘A duty to look out for other human beings’
The group home would be the eighth for Easter Seals Joliet Region, replacing a residence that was established in the late 1980s but has since outgrown its usefulness, Condotti said.
The six men who would live there are current Easter Seals residents and already live together, she added.
With commissioners James Sobkoviak and Andrew Heinen absent, the remaining members voted unanimously to support the proposal — with the stipulation that Easter Seals be asked to erect a fence around the property.
That request came from homeowners association attorney Nick Nelson on behalf of Czerwinski, who said she also had concerns that blind group home residents could come into her backyard and fall into her above-ground pool.
“Typically, I support neighbors and what their concerns are,” commissioner Ed O’Rourke said. “Unfortunately, on this case, I feel a little bit differently — probably a lot of it is fear” on residents’ part, he said.
“I understand, it’s not my house next door,” O’Rourke said.
“ … I’m certainly not going to be the one going against federal law,” he said of the Fair Housing Act. “We have a duty to look out for other human beings and do what’s right.”
The plan commission’s recommendation will go to the village board.
A second public hearing on the proposal will be held before trustees vote on the proposal at their Sept. 17 meeting.
The Easter Seals proposal isn’t the only group home that has faced opposition in recent months. In June, some for developmentally disabled children to a Minooka subdivision.