Danby, N.Y. – Shouting and harsh accusations marked a meeting in Danby Town Hall on Monday night after plans emerged for a group home that would house two Level III registered sex offenders.
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Liz Smith, executive director of the Unity House, defended the plans as safe and transparent but was met by furious residents of the area who expressed their opposition to the home and at times drowned her out.
“You guys are not letting me finish,” she pleaded at one point. Another Unity House member was similarly met with cries of outrage. “I can’t answer your question if you do not give me the chance,” this woman said.
More than 60 people packed the town hall. They appeared to be overwhelmingly against the new group home, with loud applause for those who spoke out against Unity House and howls of protest almost every time the Unity House officials spoke.
See related: After community outcry, officials stress safety of new Danby group home with sex offenders
“You talk about, you’re going to have some security. How much training do these security guards have? How physically fit are they? Are they armed?” one man asked. Many others also pressed Unity House officials for more details about the supervision of the men.
Others asked about the criminal history of the intellectually disabled men who would be housed at the group home, slated for Nelson Road. (The men are expected to move into the home in late March or early April.)
“You keep referring to them as non-violent. How is a sex offense non-violent?,” one of the neighbors said to loud applause.
Smith responded that she didn’t have details on the specific crimes the men had committed. “I don’t have the specifics right now … It will be public knowledge,” Smith said.
Danby Town Supervisor Ric Dietrich played mediator, saying that the town’s hands were tied and also asking residents to quiet down when criticisms erupted. Defending Unity House, he stressed that there are hundreds of registered sex offenders in Tompkins County who will have less supervision than the two men in the group home.
Kevin Cowen, an investigator with the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, made similar points, stressing that the registered sex offenders will have their photos and names online.
“I know it’s not the best solution, but it’s better than what it could be,” Cowen said.
Cowen said community members would have to look out for each other.
“If we can convince them and get them into the system where at least they’re supervised … to me, that’s better than a Level II sex offender whose address isn’t given to you,” Cowen said.
But it wasn’t just members of the public who expressed their frustration with Unity House. Rebecca Brenner, a member of the town board and an Ithaca College professor, assailed Unity House for lacking transparency about their plans.
Brenner questioned why even town officials didn’t learn of the plans to house sexual offenders until less than a month before they move in.
“These people found out from neighbors — this should’ve been a community conversation,” Brenner said to loud applause.
Smith responded that the Unity House had gone out of its way to spread information and go door to door to let people know about their plans — even though they didn’t have to. “The reason we are here is because we were trying, as an organization, to be transparent,” she said.
Still, it seemed clear that the overwhelming majority felt that the Unity House had acted in bad faith.
“I think we are all quite generally furious,” one resident of the area said, noting things may have been different “if you had come ahead of time.”
Brenner, echoing earlier comments made by Dietrich, said that the state law is clear that the town cannot ban the group home.
She encouraged residents to contact their state representatives to see if they could help get the law changed.