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‘Zoning dispute’ triggers protest

“Don’t fence me in.”

“We dare defend our rights.”

“We are human too.”

“We deserve to live in good housing just like you.”

“We are all God’s children.”

Driving down Highway 43 into Linden yesterday, those were the signs being held in the air on the side of the road while driving past the Linden City Hall.

The warm, sticky weather did not deter the line of equal housing supporters from holding their signs up high in attempts to get their point across – people with mental health problems deserve to live in a regular community.

There were representatives from across the state including those from the West Alabama Mental Health Center, the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, those who suffer from mental retardation and their families, and officers from People First, an organization dedicated to help mentally retarded and developmentally disabled people speak up for themselves and their rights.

“It’s wrong how the community is doing this. You should not shut people out. This is what we did in the 50s and 60s to black people and now we’re doing it to people who are mentally retarded,” Joe Meadours, director of consumer implement at the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, said. “It’s time to move to the next level. This group home will make a positive difference in the community. If we keep doing this we aren’t doing anything but separating.”

“I hope to see Linden wake up and find itself in the 21st century. I hope this leadership and this council will take it upon itself to welcome people with disabilities,” region three People First representative Jeff Ridgeway said. “We are just as able and capable as being citizens as everyone else is. We can do anything anyone else can do, if they just give us a chance. We just want the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Both West Alabama Mental Health Center executive director Kelley Parris-Barnes and vice president of Alabama’s People First Darren Morris say the reason for most of the rejection is fear.

“It’s a fear and we need to do all we can to alleviate those fears. If people truly knew much about their neighbors they have now, they would really be scared. But these aren’t people to harbor fear of,” Barnes said. “I hope this raises the awareness that we are dealing with high-functioning people and they are loving individuals that can enrich their lives as well as everyone else’s. Integrating them into the society would allow everyone to benefit as a whole.”

“There’s so much negativity from people because they are afraid. But they need to be educated because they have mental illness and mental retardation mixed up,” Morris said. “A lot of people think mentally retarded people are going to hurt them, but that’s not true. It’s a different meaning with those two words.”

For Morris, the definition between the two is clear. Mental illness is what leads people to be violent and irrational, whereas mentally retarded just means they need assistance.

But according to concerned citizens in and around the Pinecrest neighborhood, the fight isn’t a battle for keeping mentally challenged residents out of the neighborhood or fear, it’s about zoning problems and changing the neighborhood.

“I don’t like being called prejudice. We don’t mind that you’re there,” Linden resident Deborah Pettis said in the Tuesday night meeting, “What we fear is that this is going to allow businesses to come into the area. It’s a neighborhood and we don’t want it to grow like that.”

In Pettis’ mind, the home may eventually want to expand to accommodate more people, and that isn’t what Pinecrest residents want.

For resident Charles Ballas, the battle is truly about zoning laws and he doesn’t want his property value to decrease because his home is no longer considered R-1.

“It just got off on the wrong foot to start with. No one asked about zoning. When we bought our home it was R-1 and it should stay that way so it can be home for life,” Ballas said. “We don’t want the value of our property to go down.

We need to just make it a one-family dwelling and everyone can be happy.”

As way to make sure the group home remains a one-family residence, Ballas suggested having a family move into the group home and “adopt” those who would be living there. Hence, there would no longer be separate families in the home, but everyone would be a member of that one family on paper.

“We hear about their rights, but we also have rights. They broke the law when they came into zoning that was one-family,” resident Helen Nichols said. “We have to live by the zoning rules and if we have to live by them, they should too.”

But Mayor Pat Vice said the residents do not have to worry about re-zoning the area to accommodate the group home.

“Re-zoning is strictly out of the question. It is expensive and time-consuming,” Vice said. “If you can think of a different route to do what you need to do, then do it.”

And even with Amy Andrews the executive director for Fayette’s Arc, the national organization for people with mental retardation and related developmental disabilities and their families, stating they have had no problems in any of the 27 homes in Fayette in more than 20 years, the situation still didn’t change.

“There are no meth labs, no loud parties and they are not violating any residential rules. They are there with supervision and people working with them all the time,” Andrews said. “Some of these people were just like you and me until they were in a car accident, had terrible head trauma, or had a bad fall and now they need assistance. God forbid something like that happens to me, my parents of my family, but they are some of the most kind and loving people I will ever know.”

In order to resolve the tension, Morris said people must first learn the word “retard” hurts, and shouldn’t be used at all.

“We’ve come too far to use words that hurt other people’s feelings. We need to learn how to phrase things better. Then we need to learn how to accept people for what they are and not what they look like,” Morris said.

For Linden resident Mariah Ford, the town needs to pull together not be divided, she said, because this fight is a “disgrace to Linden.”

“The first thing we did in the meeting was say the ‘Pledge of Allegiance,’ and that says ‘and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God…with liberty and justice for all,'” Ridgeway said.

“It’s frightening not just for our people, or for the city of Linden, this is scary for the whole country. This will set everyone back. We just want our shot to live the American dream and our little piece of the American pie.”