Neighbors objected that the group home, as a commercial business, was out-of-place in an area generally occupied by agricultural lands and residential homes. They said it would bring too much traffic and drive down property values.
However, in granting a special use permit on Aug. 15, commissioners unanimously agreed with owner Julie Forconi and other advocates of the group home that it wouldn’t be much different than any other new home in the area.
“What she’s proposing is some more people staying on her place and a few more vehicles,” Commission Chairman Lee Livingston said during one of the commission’s three meetings on the subject, adding, “To me, I don’t see how that is out of harmony with the neighborhood.”
Commissioner Loren Grosskopf similarly noted that Park County’s rural areas are being subdivided and built up all the time.
Compared to the proposed group home, “how is that different in harmony when somebody builds one more house? And they could have eight kids in it — all teenagers,” said Grosskopf, adding, “I just can’t get over that.”
Forconi lives in a separate home on the property, near the intersection of Road 13 and Lane 11H. She called the concerns about traffic “a joke” and the overall opposition “a little bit sad.”
Forconi said the group home will have at least one staffer at all times, serving up to four people with minor mental retardation, autism, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease or elderly residents.
“It’s people who need care and can’t take care of themselves,” she explained. Responding to worries about what clients that facility could take, Forconi said, “it’s not for sex abusers; it’s not for drug rehab,” noting her teenage daughter lives on the property.
At a preliminary meeting before the county’s planning and zoning board in June, neighbor Ron Scott expressed concern that clients with Alzheimer’s disease or other problems might wander away and accidentally injure themselves on his nearby farm equipment, creating liability issues for him.
“This is not what I would like to see,” Scott said. “It would not be a good deal, I don’t think.”
Others, noting that the permit would permanently stay with the land, worried higher-risk clients might be brought in if Forconi sold her property and business to someone else.
“That’s the biggest concern with this,” said Scott Hicswa, whose new home lies 150 yards away from the planned facility. “And that’s a permanent and perpetual burden on us as adjoining landowners and neighbors that we have to worry about — if and when the other shoe’s going to fall and that change is going to take place.”
Speaking later about property values, Hicswa added that, “When we go to sell our home, I don’t think people are going to care what kind of clientele are back there. They’re just going to know that it’s an institutional housing facility and ... regardless, my family loses.”
“We just spent several hundred thousand dollars building a new home and we’re going to take it in the shorts,” he added. “I’m not a big fan of that.”
Hicswa said he and his wife Stefani, the president of Northwest College, chose to build in the area because of the peace and quiet.
Cody realtor John Parsons told commissioners that the group home would drive down the value of the Hicswas’ property, though commissioners also received studies from other parts of the country saying that would not necessarily be the case; Commissioner Joe Tilden said the value of one of his properties rose or held steady after a drug treatment facility was built nearby.
The Hicswas retained the Bonner Law Firm to help voice their objections, with attorneys Bethia Kalenak and Brad Bonner (a part-owner of the Tribune) speaking on their behalf during the multi-part hearing before commissioners.
When Bonner reiterated the Hicswas’ concerns about increased traffic on Aug. 1, Commissioner Tim French responded that, “Your clients built a brand new home and I’m happy for them, but they increased the traffic by building there.”
French added that, “the Forconis could say to your clients, by building their home, they changed their [the Forconis’] view.”
“But it is different,” Bonner countered, “because they are operating a for-profit business.”
He said Forconi’s permit could open the door to other businesses.
Mark Westerhold of Cody, a parent of children with disabilities, disputed the characterization of the group home as a business; Westerhold said the county’s zoning regulations should not interfere with the rights of disabled people to live where they want.
“They [the neighbors] may be looking at it as a business, but it’s really a home,” he said. “And it’s a home where people just need some additional assistance.”
Lisa Mann of Cody, whose adult daughter is disabled, expressed similar views.
“I have a hard time when people keep calling it a business, because it’s really a family environment. That home will look no different than most of ours,” Mann said, adding later, “My question to all of you is, where are these children supposed to live in the future? If they don’t want them next to you or in your backyard, whose backyard?”
Marion Morrison of Powell said people with a disability deserve a place to live, like anyone else.
“If we shun them as neighbors, where will we put them?” Morrison said, sarcastically suggesting that, “perhaps no one will object if we allow them to locate next to the dump.”
“If this is what we think of the members of our community who already have enough struggles as they cope with physical and cognitive disabilities, then what can we say of ourselves?” she asked rhetorically.
Morrison is a member of the county’s planning and zoning board and presided over the meeting in which it reviewed Forconi’s request and recommended that commissioners approve it.
After hearing Morrison’s remarks — which Morrison said she was making only as a private citizen — area resident Deb Nielsen said Morrison “should have probably excused herself” from the earlier planning and zoning meeting.
“It was not disclosed at that meeting that she had a child that has disabilities,” Nielsen said.
“If that’s the case, then I need to be recused,” Commissioner Livingston, himself the parent of a child with special needs, said later; he called Nielsen’s comment “unfair.”
Nielsen explained in response that, “I didn’t think it was fair that she [Morrison] accused us of saying we don’t want those handicapped people”; she said that wasn’t the issue.
Stefani Hicswa added later that, “We don’t have any problem at all with the clientele that’s being proposed to serve. What we are saying is that we are opposed, and our neighbors are opposed, to the idea of changing the use, of having a special use permit outside of the current use.”
Wes Baker, who lives roughly a third of a mile from the site, said at a July 18 hearing that he’d heard no neighbors support the project.
“It doesn’t seem reasonable that the proposed special land use could be considered to be compatible with and in harmony with the present land uses in the neighborhood in the face of such adamant opposition to it by surrounding property owners,” Baker said.
Bonner, the attorney, said last month that the Hicswas have not decided if they’ll appeal the commission’s decision in District Court.
The planning and zoning board recommended that the permit for the group home expire whenever Forconi sells the property, but commissioners did not impose that condition.