Residents near Wellington support HomeSafe but not in their backyard

A nonprofit that provides a place to live, treatment and care for children who are victims of abuse and domestic violence has been searching for land in an already built-up county for a group home that would house 12 boys.

Finding available space that meets HomeSafe’s criteria has been nearly impossible, said CEO Matthew Ladika, except for three acres near Wellington and Royal Palm Beach that they bought in November. Despite owning the land, HomeSafe, which opened in 1979, needs the Palm Beach County Commission’s approval to build. The land is designated for public civic use, and what Ladika is proposing is considered a private civic use.

But that land is also key to surrounding residents including those of Wellington View, who say that for years they’ve assumed it would be used for a park, library or a fire station — a civic use they said would benefit them and the community. The three acres were originally part of the 157-acre Wellington View development, approved in 2003.

And now a classic case of “not in my backyard” is playing out in front of county officials.

Residents got their first crack at trying to block the group home on Thursday at a zoning meeting. They wore shirts that read, “don’t change the rules.” They laughed at presenters, they cheered when they agreed with a speaker and they yelled from the audience.

Some of the board members agreed with the residents. Barbara Katz said, “To me it’s a very fine institution but it’s in the wrong place right now.”

And others, like Sam Caliendo, didn’t: “We gotta stop wanting it in everybody else’s neighborhood but ours.”

Board member Joseph Snider said he was troubled by the residents taking issue with the group home because they don’t think it benefits them directly.

“We’re all in this together in the long haul,” he said.

But by the meeting’s end, no one claimed victory, just more time for the saga to play out.

The board postponed a vote until its October meeting. Their vote serves as a recommendation to the county commissioners. The board members asked staff — who recommend approval — to bring back information about what the facility would look like, if an approval would open the door for a drug and alcohol rehab group home to open there, and feedback from the Palm Beach County School District. They also want HomeSafe and the residents to have more time to attempt to work out their differences.

The county commission has allowed a private use on the three acres before. Poinciana Day School bought the three acres in 2008 for $975,000 and the commissioners approved a private school for 250 students and a daycare for 30 children.

That was never built, however, and the land remained vacant. The commissioners revoked that approval in April. HomeSafe bought the land this past year for $825,000.

If approved, HomeSafe would build an 11,000-square-foot home for a dozen boys between the ages of 12 and 17. They’d each have their own bedroom and bathroom and the building would include a dining area, a kitchen, a reception area, offices and a room where medication would be distributed. A second 5,500-square-foot building would be where the boys can exercise, play music and use computers. There also would be space for a Children’s Services Council program that helps children through age five. Outside, there is space for a basketball court and sports fields.

The children who are placed with HomeSafe are typically wards of the state. The child typically spends nine to 12 months at the facility. HomeSafe develops a treatment plan to help the children need a lesser level of care so they can one day be reunited with their parents, or go to a foster home, or live with relatives, Ladika said. The nonprofit helps more than 16,000 infants, children, young adults and families per year.

Residents are worried about their own children’s safety and the proximity of the group home to an elementary school. They say HomeSafe doesn’t benefit them as a public civic use would and they are worried about potential liability of the HOA if one of the boys falls into an adjacent lake.

“The applicant certainly has a noble mission; however, this public civic site is not an acceptable location,” said resident Larry Koester.

Resident Melanie Mathaey said she also believes in HomeSafe’s mission, but doesn’t think the group home, a “compound,” belongs on the three acres surrounded by residential communities.

Some had stronger views.

“Yes, my heart goes out to those children and I mean this in the kindest way, none of us in this room did this to these children. We have no idea why they’re going to this facility and I’m sorry, 10- to 17-year-old children can be a problem,” said resident Sharon Speer. “At my age, now I have to fear for being on my property alone, being ambushed, possibly being raped, beaten, stolen from. I need to let you know that this is one woman that fights back, I’m from a law enforcement family and I will protect myself at all costs and I am legal to do that.”

HomeSafe said it will be staffed 24/7. In response to the lake concerns, the nonprofit has put the Wellington View HOA on its insurance policy through June 2019 — that’s the longest the policy would go for, the nonprofit said. And they’ll have a fence blocking access to the lake.

This group home would be one of two needed in place of two group homes HomeSafe has on Haverhill Road. That space recently was bought by MorseLife and HomeSafe is leasing it until October 2020. Ladika thought the three acres would be perfect for a group home because it’s smaller in size, is at least 220 feet from homes, they’re separated from them by lakes and the facility would have less impact on the community.

“We like to kind of keep to ourselves,” Ladika said. “We try not to be a burden to anybody. It’s extremely secluded. They’re not even going to know that we’re there.”

In the meantime, Ladika said he’s searching online daily to find more land for that second group home now on Haverhill.

“Searching for properties that meet our couple of acres, and then try to find one where you think we might fit is also a challenge,” he said. “That’s kind of where we’re at. We thought for sure this would work out perfect for us.”

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