The Webster Groves City Council held a Feb. 5 public hearing on proposed changes to the city’s group residential facilities.

City officials contend that changes are meant to allow for more flexibility in regulations beyond state law. But representatives from United Cerebral Palsy Heartland, and some of those served by the agency, claim some of the proposed changes target a respite care group home the agency wants to open at 450 Oak Tree Drive.

Tuesday’s public hearing was held open until the Feb. 19, due to concerns council members had about the effects of the proposed changes.

UCP Heartland provides programs and services and advances independence, productivity and rights of people with various disabilities such as cerebral palsy.

Mara Perry, the city’s director of planning and development, said the proposed changes address the fact that the city has no provisions regarding group homes in its zoning code, and have nothing to do with the house on Oak Tree.

Perry said there is a need to address issues such as traffic impacts of a facility on a neighborhood.

UCP Heartland representatives questioned changes establishing two categories of group facilities. One is a residential care center that would require a conditional use permit. The second is a residential care home that would not.

Perry said residents in a care home tend to be more permanent. In a care center, residents tend to be more transient — more like a business or commercial endeavor.

“An occupancy permit is important to ensure space is not overcrowded and to avoid safety hazards,” Perry said.

Brenda Wrench, president and CEO of UCP Heartland, said the agency has been working with the city since 2016 on its plans to acquire the 450 Oak Tree home, which she said was designed and built as a group home for individuals with disabilities.

She said the home was built in 2003 by a family that has a son with disabilities. The home then was operated by two other agencies as a group home for several years but has recently been vacant, Wrench said.

UCP Heartland paid $685,000 for the facility in the summer of 2018. Wrench said plans are to make renovations, including a sprinkler system. She said some parking would be provided by a nearby church, under an agreement.

The facility would replace UCP Heartland’s Marlborough Hall respite care facility, on South Laclede Station Road in Marlborough.

“Because our program is under contract with the state of Missouri to provide respite services as a group home, no more than eight residents would be housed at any one time in the facility – group homes are completely protected by federal and Missouri law,” Wrench said.

She added that any distinction the city might make between types of facilities “is illegal and would be a direct violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act and state statutes governing the rights of individuals with disabilities.”

City Attorney Neil Bruntrager insisted otherwise, saying “there would be no precedent here and no prohibition of facilities.”

At the meeting many representing UCP Heartland and those using its services asked that any distinction between long- and short-term facilities in any legislation be dropped.

Gary Feder, an attorney for UCP Heartland, said there is a great need for short-term respite care for those with disabilities.

He said the proposed ordinance “would greatly discourage such a use and discriminate against a segment of the disability community.

“The requirement of a conditional use permit application is intended to significantly discourage and likely exclude from Webster Groves a group home serving persons with disabilities who live in such a home for 30 days or less,” Feder continued.

Wrench said UCP’s facility is one of only two respite care facilities remaining in this area.

Former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary, president of the Special Education Foundation, said he supports the group home, and that the facility will “provide a very important function in keeping families together.”

Mary Weaver of Glendale said her 40-year-old son has received UCP Heartland services, including at Marlborough Hall, since he was six.

“They’ve been a godsend to us. I’m not sure we would be able to keep Michael at home without services like this,” Weaver said.

Webster Groves Council Member David Franklin said he was concerned the legislation “seems drafted to preclude a respite care facility going in.”

However, Addie Siefert, who lives adjacent to the home on Oak Tree Drive, said the city is not singling out anyone with the need for an occupancy permit.

“I have one – and I should be able to have peace and quiet without 40 people coming and going.”