WILLIAMSBURG — Mailed packages began piling up outside a home along Woodmere Drive near Walsingham Academy earlier this week.
The parcels were for Gateway Homes of Greater Richmond, a mental health nonprofit group.
Gateway Homes received approval for its license to operate a group home at 101 Woodmere Drive on Sept. 8, according to Cleopatra Booker, director of the office of licensing at the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
The home will be occupied by residents with mental illness trying to live somewhat independent lives after leaving treatment at Eastern State Hospital. A move-in date hasn't yet been set, although a review process for candidates is underway.
The project has prompted protests from city officials, who have argued that they have had little say in the home's approval. Residents have also questioned whether such a home would be better suited elsewhere.
City Manager Marvin Collinswrote an Aug. 25 letter to the state, expressing concern the home will be within 500 feet of Walsingham Academy.
"There are concerns about the nature of the residents of the group home," Collins said when it was discussed at a city council meeting on Thursday. The meeting was the first public discussion of the group home by the council.
In his letter, Collins said he fears that violent or sexual offenders who were found not guilty by reason of insanity could potentially be housed at the group home, since these individuals aren't necessarily restricted by legislation that bars some sex offenders from residing near schools.
Gateway Homes doesn't accept individuals who committed sexual offenses as a company protocol, according to Lynda Hyatt, executive and clinical director at Gateway Homes.
State officials replied to Collins in an Aug. 31 letter that stated Gateway's admission criteria doesn't accept individuals who are registered sex offenders, unrestorably incompetent to stand trial for sexual offenses that would result in registration as sex offenders, or found not guilty by reason of insanity for sexual offenses. Gateway's provision regarding sexual offenders was key in approving the license, Booker said.
Residents worried about home
Gateway policies don't comfort some residents, who fear even the possibility of dangerous individuals in their neighborhood and criticize what they see as a one-sided process of establishing the group home.
"It's a safety issue," said Ed Brandt, president of the Yorkshire Homeowners Association Board of Directors. "It's appalling how the thing has been handled."
Yorkshire Drive is parallel and adjacent to Woodmere Drive. Two houses on Yorkshire Drive border the group home property.
While he's aware of Gateway's policy against housing sexual offenders, that the law allows for the possibility of such individuals being at the house worries Brandt, adding that while he isn't opposed to a group home in concept, the potential danger of residents threatens the local community.
Brandt also criticized the process of establishing the group home, saying it wasn't transparent. He took particular issue with Middleburg Bank, the bank he and other local residents identified as the entity that leased the property to Gateway on behalf of the property's owners.
While he acknowledged the legality of the lease, Brandt felt the action was unfair due to a lack of notification from the bank to the neighborhood about the transaction.
David Hartley, president and CEO of Middleburg Investment Group, part of Middleburg Bank, declined to comment on activity related to the property but confirmed Middleburg is a co-conservator of an estate that includes 101 Woodmere Drive.
School wasn't warned
Sister Mary Jeanne Oesterle, president of Walsingham Academy, recognized parents' concerns and the need for the school to understand the group home.
"We're doing our due diligence to find out about the home," she said.
While questions remain about the group home, Oesterle expressed confidence in the school's safety precautions, which include a video-monitored front entrance and total supervision of students on the playground. Still, she acknowledged the value of group homes.
"It's a real positive thing," Oesterle said of the group home concept. She stressed that proper supervision would be vital to make a group home safe for the community. The school received no official notification from the city or state of the group home, Oesterle said.
Notification came from local homeowners associations.
City officials and local residents report the group home came as a surprise. Collins' letter states the city only found out in August after it was notified by Colonial Behavioral Health. Residents said they found out through their homeowners associations, which were notified by the city.
However, Hyatt says Gateway acquired a certificate of occupancy, and a health and a fire inspection from the city in June as requirements of the licensing application. The purpose of the property was revealed at that time, she added.
Colonial Behavioral Health, a local community services board, first learned about the proposal at a monthly meeting held by regional CSBs on Aug. 1, according to Executive Director David Coe. CSBs provide pre-admission screening to medical facilities, as well as emergency and referral services to individuals with mental illness, substance abuse or intellectual disability. Colonial Behavioral Health serves Williamsburg, James City and York counties, and Poquson.
Coe informed localities served by Colonial Behavioral Health to the possibility of an increase in demand for social services resulting from the facility's operation.
Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board acted as Gateway's fiscal agent for the project, providing money from a regional fund the CSB oversees for the region, Coe said. Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board negotiated the contract with Gateway on behalf of the region as well.
Gateway has a successful track record with group homes like the one to be located at 101 Woodmere, Coe said.
Gateway doesn't plan to renovate the existing four-bedroom, two-bath home on Woodmere Drive, Hyatt said. The house is zoned RS-1, allowing for single-family residences and buildings like schools and churches with special permits. The group home is considered by state and federal law to be a single-family home, according to the DBHDS.
Home offers independent living
The group home exists to house individuals interested in living as independently as they can, Hyatt said. The group house is staffed 24/7 with two supervisors. Residents are required to attend structured day activities.
There is space for eight residents. Men and women will be allowed to live in the house but roommates must be the same sex, according to the DBHDS.
Activities vary based on individual needs but can include volunteering and attending school, Hyatt said. Supervisors monitor compliance with medication regimens.
CSBs serving the Eastern Shore, Newport News, Chesapeake, Williamsburg and other nearby areas as part of Health Planning Region Five can refer potential residents to the group home in coordination with Eastern State Hospital.
The referring CSB monitors its individuals and Colonial Behavioral Health intervenes only in crisis situations to expedite needed care, Coe said. He added that given the amount of work done prior to an individual's placement at a group home, emergency services are rare.
Several referred individuals recommended by Colonial Behavioral Health are currently in the admission process, which includes interviews, screening for aggressive behavior and review of documentation, according to Hyatt. Since the admission process for the first potential residents is ongoing, Hyatt couldn't provide an exact move-in date for residents.
Wesley Wright contributed to this report.
Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.
An open house will be held from 1-3 p.m. on Sept. 23 at 101 Woodmere Drive.