By Nassim Benchaabane

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The only reason Robby Fisher can live at home with his parents is because they have somewhere safe to take him if an emergency strikes.

Fisher, 28, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He lives with his father, Robert Fisher, 63, and stepmother, Deanna Fisher, 51, who are his caregivers.

When Robert Fisher underwent heart surgery, and when Deanna Fisher underwent surgery for hip dysplasia, they took him to a two-bedroom home in Marlborough, Missouri, owned by United Cerebral Palsy Heartland.

Since the ’70s, the nonprofit group has used the home to provide an around-the-clock refuge for people with disabilities whose regular caretakers run into an emergency or to simply need a break. The home lets people with disabilities stay until they return to their caretakers or find permanent housing. In one case, a 73-year-old man stayed for four months after his mother, 97, who had cared for him all his life, died suddenly.

“When somebody has nobody to take care of them all of the sudden, for any reason, this becomes a lifesaving operation,” UCP spokeswoman Kathleen Beach said. “Those few beds can make a big difference.”

The group has plans to move the service to a home in Webster Groves, Missouri, but is facing zoning hurdles that its directors see as unfair and potentially illegal but that some city officials see as necessary to regulate such shelters.

The respite home in Marlborough, licensed as a group home by the state Department of Mental Health, is one of three in the St. Louis area. Others have closed because it’s a costly service. Meanwhile, Missouri is no longer issuing new licenses for group homes.

The Marlborough home was never designed for people in wheelchairs. So when a one-of-a-kind home in Webster Groves became available, the nonprofit group seized the opportunity.

The four-bedroom home includes extra-wide hallways and doorways, automated door openers, wheelchair lifts, roll-in showers, a sprinkler system, outdoor ramps and a large garage designed for wheelchair-equipped vans.

The couple who built the home designed it for their son, who like Robby Fisher has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. They spent nearly $800,000 by the time they completed the home in 2005.

After their son moved elsewhere, the family sold the house to the nonprofit last year for $685,000. The group has since spent tens of thousands of dollars fixing it to comply with building codes and to add an automated ceiling lift that can carry people from their beds to bathrooms and back.

The home would provide care for a maximum of eight people at any one time. The group wants to move in by the summer.

But there’s a technocratic hitch.

New zoning laws that the Webster Groves planning and zoning commission recently recommended to the City Council would require the group to apply for a conditional use permit for the home and make a number of changes to the property, including adding parking spots and a designated drop-off point, and setting hours of operation.

Rather than a group home, the home would be designated a “residential care facility.”

But the nonprofit argues that putting any kind of special requirement on the home would violate the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing, as well as state statutes defining group homes as residential facilities serving nine or fewer residents. And the nonprofit worries the city could ultimately deny their conditional use permit.

“Here’s the golden rule for the rights of people with disabilities: If you don’t require it of other people in the community, you can’t require it of them,” said the nonprofit’s CEO, Brenda Wrench.

“I imagine that from Webster’s perspective this seems like a compromise where they just want to be sure we’re doing things right,” Wrench said. “But if we went down that path, we’ve conceded that we’re not a group home, and we’re not going to do that. We’re a group home, our contract with the state says that.”

Mara Perry, Webster Groves zoning and planning commissioner, said that the code revisions weren’t aimed at the nonprofit specifically but that their plans for the home prompted revisions the city had talked about making for years.

Perry said the changes were necessary to give the city more flexibility in regulating various group homes and adult day care centers.

“We definitely didn’t have anything in the code before to address group homes at all,” Perry said. “We’ve just been following state regulations, and that doesn’t make it flexible for many of the group homes operating today.”

The city has one other adult day care, open only during the day, but it is in a part of the city that is zoned commercial.

The United Cerebral Palsy home is in a residential zone, but its operations would be more commercial in nature, Perry said. Requiring the agency to get approval for a conditional use permit would give neighbors a chance to ask questions and weigh in, she said.

“It’s a wonderful service, but it’s a service that’s going into a residential neighborhood and could have an impact on traffic and the intensity of living in that neighborhood,” she said.

A neighbor of the Oak Tree home has appeared at public hearings on the zoning ordinances to raise concerns about the planned group home’s impact on the neighborhood.

But potential next-door neighbor Karl Reindhardt said he had no concerns and never had any issues with a prior group home there. And a church across the street from the Oak Tree home has agreed to let the nonprofit use its parking lot if needed.

At a recent meeting, Webster Groves City Council members appeared poised to find a workaround for the home after hearing from families of people with disabilities and other advocates, including the Fishers, former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary, president of the Special Education Foundation, and Judy Granger, with the Missouri Association of Rehabilitation Facilities.

Dwayne Bruce, who uses a wheelchair and has stayed at the Marlborough shelter, also spoke.

“It was run very professionally, and the place was as clean as anything I’ve ever seen,” said Bruce, who lives in St. Louis. “I really think it’s important that the community embrace this as an option.”

Mary Weaver’s son, Michael, has been going to the Marlborough home since he was 6 years old. He is now 39.

“UCP has been a godsend to us,” Weaver said. “I’m not sure we’d still be able to have Michael at home if we didn’t have something like this to provide care for Michael when we can’t.”

The council voted unanimously to delay the zoning changes until its next meeting.

Council members Frank Janoski, David Franklin and Laura Arnold also made it clear that they didn’t want to keep the respite home from moving in.

“To me these homes — and I think that’s exactly what they are, homes — are a fundamental building block of our community,” Franklin said. “And to treat them differently merely because they have temporary residents because of the underlying disability that these individuals have is not very policy-driven in the essence of building for people.”

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