Danby, N.Y. — It’s clear that Danby does not have the legal authority to prohibit a controversial group home from moving into the town.
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But, Town Supervisor Ric Dietrich says, that doesn’t mean it can’t try “to facilitate the neighborhood’s concerns” over the project.
What does that mean?
Dietrich said the town can’t indicate it is trying to derail the project. But, he notes, “Public influence might have some influence on Unity’s decision to proceed with the project.”
Public outrage erupted last week after plans emerged for the Unity House, which runs a network of group homes across the region, to move two registered Level III sex offenders into a facility on Nelson Road near a school and a daycare center.
Dietrich said he thought the emotional outcry was in part justified and in part overblown.
Dietrich stressed that there are hundreds of sex offenders across Tompkins County, who — unlike the ones who will be housed at Unity — are not under any supervision. (Those at Unity House will be supervised 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, according to Liz Smith, Unity’s executive director.)
“We’re trying to help people frame this in a constructive way, outside the mass hysteria,” Dietrich says. “I think we need to calm down and put it in perspective.”
Still, Dietrich said that it’s understandable that residents would be angered by the secrecy and suddenness of the project. He also questioned whether — even without the legal authority to mandate it — Danby could work with Unity House to find a better location that’s less offensive to residents.
“We were really blindsided by this,” he said. “I think residents were like, ‘How could this happen?’ … I think people were bowled over — they felt like it was happening in secret.”
Dietrich said there are other locations in the town that may be similarly priced but not in such a concentrated area “where we have schools and daycare centers.”
“There’s a lot of places in town we could have sited this that wouldn’t have been so volatile,” he says.
Additionally, Dietrich said, some of the public outcry may have been averted had Unity House come to town officials more than a few weeks before the residents were set to come in.
Among the steps they could have taken were informational meetings to brief residents about the project and the creation of a neighborhood watch group for the town.
Last week, he admits, was a busy one. “By Monday morning you could begin to see that this was gaining momentum way out of proportion to anything we’ve had recently coming on our board,” he said.
Today, he said, he’s been in touch with the office of state Senator James Seward and will also be in touch with Assembly member Barbara Lifton. He said he wants to get local officials, police, residents and other stakeholders together to see what the town’s options could be moving forward.
“The town is going to follow-up, and we’re making every effort,” he says.
“I don’t know if public pressure could change Unity House’s perception.”