Jackson County Times

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sunrise ARC Group Homes- Good or Bad for County?

South of Grand Ridge on Highway 69, A new center for mentally handicapped is about to open. Many locals are upset over methods used to start operations.

By Bo McMullian

The neighborhood is adamantly opposed to it but apparently there is little the adjoining homeowners can do. Two group homes for the mentally ill are opening in Jackson County. The first will open this month and the other is scheduled to open the first of next year. They are located six miles south of Grand Ridge on State Road 69. Sunrise ARC, a non-profit group out of Leesburg, has purchased and is now renovating one home and is expecting to close the purchase on the other in two weeks, CEO John Askew told the Jackson County Times on Tuesday.

Beginning just two months ago, Sunrise has done all the work without appearing at any public meetings or even contacting the Jackson County Commission or its community development office. It turns out they didn’t have to, since both homes will include only six clients. The law provides that residential group homes with six or less residences are considered single-family units and are thus “non-commercial.” (Fla. Statutes 419.001(2))

That is precisely what Community Development Director Joan Schairer told Marianna attorney Guy Green in a letter late last month. Green has been retained by nearby homeowner Cecil Scott. Green’s office said Monday that “no lawsuit has been filed, yet.”

When asked if Sunrise often opens group homes without telling the community, Askew said, “Generally we do inform them when the area is high-density population and there are homeowners associations. Since this area is so sparsely populated, we didn’t.”

But the Scotts, the Yoders, the Millers, the Barfield’s and others who asked not to be named in this article are resentful of Askew’s attitude, and they don’t consider themselves sparsely populated at all. Especially the Barfields. “They’re trying to ram this down our throats,” Monk Barfield told the Times on Monday. “They were working on this before we knew anything about it,” his wife Kathryn added. “We moved back here from Jacksonville to get away from all that over crowding, and now we have this! We’re both in our mid-70s, what about our security?”

A small stand of pines is all that separates the Barfield’s homestead from the almost finished group home which was sold to Sunrise by Hershel and Carolyn McCroan for $260,000. “The high chain-link fences that surround the property and the high-tech security systems are frightening,” Monk said.

The other home will be on property to be sold to Sunrise by Dwight and Missy Dykes. That site is on the opposite side of S.R.69, the west side, from the McCroan property, and is more than 1,000 feet from the other group home, as the law requires. The McCroan site is to include six women aged 25 to 40 and the Dykes site is to include six men aged 18-22, Askew said.

Without question, the Sunrise group has its ducks in a row, and very neatly. It should; it is run by a former Marianna man, John Askew, a social worker at Sunland Training Center in the late 1960s. “Back in the days of Harry Howell and Charles Cox,” he said. Askew has helped Sunrise run its six group homes in Lake County for the past 20 years. During those 20 years and more, the state of Florida has closed five of the original seven Sunlands with only the Marianna and Gainesville facilities remaining. In 1967, Askew said, those seven held more than 7,000 clients and today the two house less than 1,200. This shortfall created the need for more of these homes.

These local group homes will house clients similar in disabilities to those currently cared for at Sunland, Askew said. Commonly, these clients have Down’s Syndrome, autism and seizure illnesses. He promised none would come from jails and prisons, but that some could come from Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee,….but not from the forensic or criminal wards. He said in all his 20 years with Sunrise, he has had zero problems with clients getting into trouble with the law.

“They’re too busy,” he said. “We keep them that way. And they are watched around the clock by trained personnel.” With about 14 persons on staff around the clock at each home. Sunrise expects to employ about 45 persons. Funding comes from Medicaid, and donations from the private sector with no state or federal grants, Askew said.

“We’re good neighbors,” Askew said when asked about lingering resentments by the homeowners. “We invite them all to come and visit us. We’d love to be part of the community.”

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