What a difference eight months makes.

Two of three members changed their votes on the Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday.

A new, unanimous vote allowed two more people to live in a group home for the developmentally disabled at 1301 Guild St. in Port Charlotte.

“I feel good, because it was a win for our individuals,” said Joy Tanner, owner of Brighter Living Group Homes after the decision. “But I cannot get over the May 9 hearing ... We walked out of here, we felt bullied and beat down and saddened that there were that many ignorant people.”

In May last year, a divided board turned down the same request with a 3-2 vote.

For that hearing, neighbors lined up to complain about the residence. They complained about traffic, parking, occasional strange sounds, and a fear of what to do if residents were found wandering in someone’s yard. That has not happened.

No neighbors came to this second hearing.

In May, board member William Abbatematteo led the vote against the home, saying the facility had violated a requirement to be unobtrusive.

This week, in which he changed his vote, Abbatematteo objected to being called ignorant. Tanner had suggested this in a written statement.

“The director of operations ... and myself walked into this room naive and unaware of the misconceptions, the bias and ignorance surrounding the handicap and disabled community. Not only from the neighborhood, but also the commissioners,” she wrote.

“Can you explain how some of us were biased and ignorant?” Abbatematteo asked. He stated that no one should assume board members do not have disabled people in their own families.

Tanner said of people with bias, “they have a stereotypical view that we’re going to have crazy people ... ‘There goes the neighborhood.’”

“They are high-functioning people,” she said of the residents. “They have choices. They’re people. If you’re not used to being around them, there’s a stigma.”

None of the current six residents of the home have attended either hearing. On Wednesday, however, the brother of one resident spoke emotionally.

“If it wasn’t for Joy and Brighter Living Group Homes, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Robert Garneau, whose brother has Down syndrome. “The place is clean. The staff is awesome. The clients are treated with dignity. I cannot thank Joy and the group home enough for what they do.”

“If you went in and saw how the kids are treated, you’d be impressed,” he added.

The building is 5,000 square feet, and sits on two lots. There are five bedrooms and 3-1/2 bathrooms. It has a two-car garage and a driveway that holds six cars.

State law bars communities from enacting zoning laws that prohibit group homes for the disabled — but only for up to six people. The Charlotte County zoning code allows more than six with a special exception.

County staff has repeatedly said the program meets all the requirements for a special exception.

After the hearing Wednesday, Senior Planner Ken Quillen said the application has not changed from May, nor has the staff recommendation. He was not sure what had changed.

Abbatematteo said, however, at the hearing, that he believed the group home had addressed concerns, such as parking.

Tanner said the program was just moving in at the time of the last hearing, and that caused more traffic. She criticized neighbors for complaining about a county bus that picks up residents during the day.

It is no different than a school bus, she said. No neighbors had contacted the home directly.

The board has lost one member who supported the group home in May, Peter Gerhardt. Another member who opposed the application, John Doner, did not attend the hearing Wednesday. New member Steve Vieira voted to support the application, after receiving assurances that the group home did not accept clients with serious criminal records.



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