By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – A local organization working with the blind, visually impaired and the developmentally challenged is moving forward with its plans to construct a group home in the township.
Housing and United Services, Inc., a Leonardo-based not-for-profit that has been working with the disabled since 1990 has long wanted to establish a group home, Executive Director Michael Marrazzo said. “It’s just taken us a while to put all the pieces together.”
While the organization has plans to build two homes in the township, it is now poised to move forward with the first. The township committee recently approved the transfer to the organization of a township-owned property on Unity Court, Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante said. The property, located on a secluded residential block on an unpaved street off Route 35, was acquired by Middletown many years ago through foreclosure. The governing body initially intended to use the property for an affordable housing project but instead decided to allow Housing and United Services to use it. With the construction of the proposed group home, the township will receive two affordable housing credits for each bedroom, Mercantante said.
Housing and United Services is planning to construct a four-bedroom ranch-style home on the nearly 1-acre property that will become home to four people, Marrazzo said. Construction should take about a year to 18 months, once the transfer has been completed.
The plan, however, is not without controversy. Area resident have voiced their opposition to the plan fearing, among other things, that such a facility would jeopardize property value, a contention that both Marrazzo and Mercantante dismissed.
“I think it’s absurd to suggest that a house with four blind people living in it would hurt anyone’s property values,” Mercantante said. “It’s probably as good a neighbor as you could get. I’d take them in a heartbeat.”
Seven other group homes for disabled residents are located in the township, Mercantante said.
Another concern, Marrazzo noted, was that people other than who the home is intended for would be housed there. “There are really a number of controls in place to keep that from happening,” Marrazzo said.
The township committee included a deed restriction that requires the site to be used for a group home for the disabled for the next 30 years, both men noted.
In addition, Marrazzo said, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is providing much of the funding for the project, stipulates the home must remain housing for the disabled for at least 40 years. “We’d lose our funding,” if the use changes, Marrazzo said. “Why would we do that?”
The group home was initially going to be built on township property in the Navesink section, but issues with the property’s title forced the parties to look for another location. The search had to be completed quickly to keep the federal funding earmarked for the project.
Township officials subdivided the Unity Court site into four lots, signing over one to Housing and United Services. The other three lots are being sold for a private development, according to Mercantante.
The four group home residents will be selected by the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Developmental Disabilities from more than 300 disabled individuals now living in developmental centers around the state, based on their desires about where to live and their needs. The goal is to provide the residents with a home setting, assistance, access to public transportation and employment opportunities within a reasonable distance to allow them to become part of the community and “truly live independently on their own,” in an affordable home, Marrazzo said
While the project doesn’t require planning or zoning board approval or public hearings, Marrazzo, who is blind, said he plans to conduct an information session for area residents to answer questions and hopefully assuage their concerns.