Danby, N.Y. — Three intellectually disabled men will be housed in a new group home on Nelson Road in the town of Danby starting in late March or the beginning of April.
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Two of the men expected to move into the Unity House home are registered Level III sex offenders. The group home will be less than a mile away from a school and a daycare.
Concerns over the placement of the group home have generated significant community outcry since at least late last week. But Liz Smith, executive director of Unity House, says those worries should be quelled by the facility’s stringent and extensive security measures.
“I want people to know that I appreciate and I understand their concerns and their fears,” she says. “I’m a mom. I have three children, and I have played this out in my head as well if this were happening in my neighborhood. I really do appreciate what people are feeling right now, but with that said, safety is our number one focus.”
Smith stressed that the Unity House is primarily serving the intellectually disabled and that the men’s mental health problems predate their sex offenses. She added that one of the men was tied to a sex offense over 30 years ago and the other man’s crime occurred almost 20 years ago.
“We understand everybody’s concerns and I will not minimize how they’re feeling about this. What I want them to know though is that we have really worked very hard with NY State to identify what the needs are for these individuals,” she said.
The home will be staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The overnight staff will be awake throughout the night. The home will be fitted with alarms and bells to ensure that someone knows where the men are at all times.
“Our thought was, ‘Let’s approach this like a worst case scenario,’” Smith says.
“One of the things I heard was that (community members) thought these guys would be roaming up and down the street with no supervision — that really is not the case.”
Smith did not have details about the nature of the men’s offenses. “I don’t know the details other than that it was a sexual offense,” she said.
A concerned community
Many neighbors are unconvinced. Mark Andrews, who lives three doors down from the group home at 176 Nelson Road, says he worries about his two elderly relatives who live in a separate unit 70 feet from his.
“I don’t have a problem if they are developmentally disabled. I do have a problem if they are sexual predators … or someone who has committed a sexual crime,” Andrews said.
Andrews cited the David Renz case in Syracuse, where a woman was murdered and her daughter raped by a man already convicted of possessing child pornography.
Andrews also worried that even if the sexual offenders currently moving in are old, they could be replaced by younger sexual offenders years from now.
“They could put someone in there who is younger … and then, who knows? Who knows? It’s just going to open up a door,” Andrews said. “I don’t want it in my neighborhood. I don’t.”
Andrews said he often sees a young girl riding her bike alone near the proposed group home. That will probably no longer be the case — and the neighborhood as a whole will feel different altogether — once the group home is up and running, Andrews said.
At least one neighbor is already looking to sell his home before property values are brought down by the group home, Andrews said.
The Voice received several emails from residents of the area furious about the plans. An online petition, “Stop the pedophile group home,” had gathered dozens of signatures as of Monday afternoon.
“We refuse to allow this to happen,” the petition states. “Put them elsewhere.”
Sarah Elbert, who also lives in the neighborhood, strongly criticized the Unity House for a lack of transparency about its plans.
At first, she had only learned that the inhabitants of the group home would be intellectually disabled. She said that was of no concern to her.
However, Elbert said she felt deceived when she learned — only last week — that sexual offenders were part of the plan.
“It’s a lack of neighborliness. It’s secretiveness,” said Elbert, a retired SUNY professor.
“We have an elected town board; how could something like this happen and nobody talk to us about it?”
Danby supervisor: Hands tied
Even if it wanted to, Danby’s not legally able to prevent the group home from moving into the property on Nelson Road, according to Town Supervisor Ric Dietrich.
Dietrich said denying Unity House the property based on its housing of the developmentally disabled would amount to a violation of the law.
“I am bound by the laws of the state of New York,” he said. “…We’re just the messenger; we’re not setting policy.”
A building permit was approved sometime last month for work on the group home, said Matt Cooper, code enforcement officer for Danby.
Cooper said that at the time the town knew it was for the developmentally disabled, but that doing background checks on possible residents was “completely outside of our purview.”
The only future approval the group home is likely to need is a certificate of occupancy once up and running, according to Cooper.
There will be a meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at Danby Town Hall.
Elbert guessed that a few dozen people would be there.
We will continue to provide updates.