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AM.F. NEIGHBORS PROTEST GROUP HOME

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Parents began pulling "path duty" for children walking to school in the Evergreen Acres subdivision shortly after a male teenager sexually abused boys and girls in the neighborhood 10 years ago.

Shaken mothers and fathers posted themselves as lookouts in a field children cut through on their way to Barratt Elementary. Some parents wouldn't let their children play alone outside.After a decade of trying to heal, residents want to avoid anything they perceive might rekindle the hysteria. That's one reason many oppose a group home for the mentally disabled some former neighbors want to open at a house they own at 92 N. 775 East.

"I think what we're asking for is our comfort back," said Richard Lund.

Residents fear the house will become a haven for people with violent pasts. They believe children will be at risk again.

"I'm looking to protect my family," Lund said.

The couple proposing the group home, Joyce and David Halling, owners of Sunrise Residential Services, lived in the neighborhood for 10 years before moving to Sandy in 1990. The Hallings used to invite mentally disabled clients to swim in their backyard pool. They run eight 12- to 66-bed centers for mentally retarded people from Provo to Ogden.

"My neighbors know me and they know the clients I take care of," Joyce Halling said. "It was very surprising to me that they took the issue so seriously."

Residents organized a petition to stop the Hallings from moving three mentally handicapped people under 24-hour supervision into the three-bedroom split-level house. They have also appeared before the American Fork City Council twice to voice their opposition.

The battle over the group home shifted to the council chambers after the city zoning administrator denied Halling a conditional-use permit because she refused to certify that her tenants won't be violent. Halling appealed to the council.

"I felt I cannot predict the future," she said.

Halling also declined to disclose the clients' names and behavioral histories, saying the city has no right to such information.

Those requirements in American Fork's development code put it at odds with state and federal fair-housing laws.

State statute allows cities to prevent violent people and those undergoing alcohol or drug treat-ment from living in group homes. The Fair Housing Act says people with disabilities may be excluded from residential-care facilities if they're a direct threat to cause physical damage.

Assistant Utah attorney general Stephen Mikita said American Fork's ordinance "goes beyond" state law and is "probably unlawful" in light of the Fair Housing Act amendments of 1988.

City officials are reviewing the ordinance. The council won't make a decision on the group home until it believes the city has a firm legal position.

"People with disabilities have to be treated like any other owner, occupant or renter," said Ric Zaharia, director of the state Division of Services for People with Disabilities.

The state law lacks a definition for the word "violent." State officials interpret it to mean those with criminal records of violence.

"We don't intend to place any of those people in that group home," Za-haria said.

Mikita said that assurance from the state is sufficient for American Fork to issue Sunrise Residential Services a conditional-use permit. The firm has met all other housing safety requirements.

That leaves Lund, the neighborhood spokesman, little comfort. "It's just the word of one individual on the state level. There's nothing there that assures anyone of anything," Lund said. Not revealing profiles of those who will live in the group home puts neighborhood welfare at stake, he said.

"If that is not required, we could wind up with a Ron Lafferty or somebody of that caliber," Lund said.

Halling said the Legislature must make the state law clearer "so cities can't use this as an excuse to keep people out."

Zaharia said it's a shame that residents appear to be associating mental disabilities with violent behavior.

"People with disabilities are no more likely to throw a tantrum or throw a chair out the window than anyone else. Unfortunately, folks tend to overreact when they hear the word handicapped. Just because a person has a handicap doesn't mean you're going to get crummy behavior. You can get crummy behavior out of high school seniors," he said.

Lund said residents have been unfairly painted as bigots since they spoke against the group home in a City Council meeting last May. Lund and others retained an attorney after being threatened with civil-rights lawsuits.

"Prejudice is not the motive for the concerns we have raised," Lund wrote in a letter to the council July 26. The group home is "not so much a humanitarian effort, but a very lucrative business proposal," the letter says.

"I look at this the same way as someone wanting to put a 7-Eleven in the neighborhood. It's the same situation," he said. "I don't want a business in my subdivision."

Halling laughs at the suggestion she's in it for the money. "I'm very serious about what I do," she said. After renters moved out of her house, she said, she saw an opportunity to provide mentally handicapped people a place in the community.

"I'm trying to have a setting that's more like a home," she said.