The Planning and Development Committee held a public hearing Monday to discuss, among other things, a bill to require a public hearing before any sort of group home is established in a town. It wasn’t long into the hearing before the measure was framed as regressive by its opposition and the word “discrimination” entered the discussion.

The bill was proposed as the result of an issue in Bristol where several group homes where moved into the town and residents were frustrated that they had no say in the matter.

But before the hearing had begun Senate Planning and Development Chairman Steve Cassano told reporters he did not support the bill and likened group homes to cell phone towers—no one wants them in their town but we need them.

The discrimination accusations came mainly from parents, care providers and others who work with the state’s developmentally disabled population.

Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Peter H. O’Meara said the measure would have a negative impact on the work his agency does and said it was hard not to interpret it as discriminatory.

Stephen Becker, a doctor who works at a group home, told the committee the bill was a step in the wrong direction for a state that has made a lot of progress.

“I don’t see any reason to go through a process to offer the opportunity for people to discriminate against us,” Becker told the committee. “We see this all the time on social issues. We move forward, we advance, we learn not to be so fearful. I don’t have any issue with people knowing [about the group home in their town] but I do have an issue with a public hearing. That implies an approval process and an opportunity for us to be discriminated against.”

Becker described the legislation as using a sledgehammer to fix a problem requiring a scalpel.

Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, a proponent of the bill, described the hearing as emotional but said it had gone much the way he had expected it to. The bill was a broad attempt to address an issue, he said, and the public hearing was a way for lawmakers to better understand the details around it. Lawmakers will take what was learned from the hearing and narrow the measure, he said.

Several municipal leaders testified to the committee in support of the public hearing mandate. Their reasons ranged from the “not in my backyard” mentality to public safety concerns. However, the majority of the supporters seemed to be looking for better avenues of communication when it comes to group homes coming into their towns.

Wolcott Mayor Tom Dunn said his support of the bill had nothing to do with not wanting group homes in his town. There are six group homes within a quarter-mile of his house and 12 in his town, he told the committee.

“Nobody wants to discriminate against anybody else,” he said, adding that people just want information.

Dunn said that typically a letter is sent out to residents that a group home is moving in and that’s about all the information they get.  As a public official he wants more communication so he has more information to give the residents of his town, he said.

North Haven Fire Chief Vincent Landisio said the lack of information on the specifics of group homes also poses a public safety risk and puts residents of the group home at risk since emergency responders don’t know their specific needs.

“We have 25 group homes in North Haven. We welcome them. This is not a NIMBY issue,” he said. “This is a public safety issue.”

Landisio said that his fire department sometimes only finds out about the needs of group home residents when they respond to an emergency call and learn there is a group home at the address. He said they have found six group homes in town “by accident.”

It’s important for emergency responders to have that information, he said, since some residents may have limited evacuation capabilities.

Bristol Town Councilman Ken Cockayne also brought concerns about emergency responders and poor communication. When a group home moved into town with youth residents, no one knew whether or not it was the town’s responsibility to cover education costs for them, he said. That question has yet to be answered, he said.

Cockayne seemed frustrated with the group homes in his town. Zoning regulations dictate that group homes are not to be within 1,000 feet of each other, he said. But one company built two only 1,200 feet apart, he said, adding that they were “playing a game.”

“Let’s be honest, this is a business and it should be treated as such,” he said. “Who’s looking out for the home owner?”

Midway through the hearing Fasano stepped out to talk with Lois Nitch, the mother of a 45 year-old disable man. Nitch described her son’s group home as a blessing in his life and she testified in opposition to the bill. Outside the hearing room she told Fasano of her concerns that the bill was drafted too narrowly and would have a negative impact on people like her son.

Fasano didn’t disagree with her but chalked the broad nature of the bill up to a sneaky legislative tactic employed in budget bill from 2005.

Traditionally, group homes run by the Department of Developmental Services have been exempt from certain zoning requirements, he said. The theory was, residents of those homes did not own cars or drive, he said. Because of their lack of mobility they had a relatively low impact on the towns they lived in.

But in 2005, an effort was made to tie those group homes with other kinds of homes, like clinics for people battling substance abuse, he said. Residents of those homes can own cars and are generally harder to keep track of, he said.

“There is no sense of where they are at any given time. They could walk out that door and just keep going,” he said. “There are car issues, parking issues, a whole slew of issues you don’t have when you’re talking about disabled people.”

During a public hearing those concerns were brought up and after Fasano thought the issue was tabled for further discussion, he said.

However, when the budget bill passed that year, the measure was slipped into one of the implementers, he said.

“What a lot of people do is pass legislation that they don’t want too many people to know about inside the implementers,” he said. “A two or three word change was all it took to make the law apply to substance abuse clients.”

But Fasano said that separating the two groups through legislation would be an easy fix and it will likely be how the supporters of the public hearing mandate will proceed.