Williamsburg homeowners, legislators wage fight against group home

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The home at 101 Woodmere Drive that is under lease by Gateway Homes. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)
The home at 101 Woodmere Drive is under lease by Gateway Homes. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)

A two-story colonial home at the end of a sleepy cul-de-sac in a Williamsburg neighborhood currently sits idle. Its unkempt front lawn and untrimmed shrubs contrast tidy, well-maintained yards of adjacent properties.

Currently unoccupied, the home at 101 Woodmere Drive has been leased to Gateway Homes of Greater Richmond and will soon house eight full-time residents who have recently been released from state mental health care facilities such as Eastern State Hospital.

The future group home is located in the Woods neighborhood of Williamsburg and abuts the Yorkshire neighborhood, two communities whose median home values surpass $400,000.

At a meeting Wednesday, homeowners from the two neighborhoods presented strategies for preventing Gateway Homes from opening the living and recovery center in their area. Ideas included a letter-writing campaign to state representatives and local officials, showing support for legislative agendas that require buffer zones around schools, and voting for local candidates who are willing to make this a campaign issue.

A handout from the meeting urged residents to “vote for those who have supported/protected our community” — without naming any specific politicians. The residents’ efforts have already garnered the attention of state lawmaker Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), the Virginia Senate Majority Leader and Co-Chair of the Finance Committee.

In a letter to the Hampton-Newport News Community Service Board, a mental health group that refers potential Gateway residents, Norment threatened to restrain funding to “these inappropriate located [sic] homes,” and said that Gateway’s community was “not compatible” with the neighborhood.

“I believe the ‘Rights’ of these former patients must be balanced with the property rights of homeowners,” he wrote.

Gateway's living center is located in The Woods neighborhood. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)
Gateway’s living center is located in The Woods neighborhood. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)

Jean Fox, who serves on Yorkshire’s Landscaping Committee, was one of many at last week’s meeting who expressed concerns about the safety of the neighborhood once residents move in to Gateway’s center.

“I am out there all the time alone,” she said. “There is nothing like being out in your yard and feeling safe.”

For those who have been through Gateway’s program, or have a family member who has, the community’s concerns about safety paint an unfair picture of those who struggle with mental illness.

“I don’t think they should feel like that,” said Mari Raimondi, whose sister was a resident of a Gateway living center in another community for several years. “Mental illness is a disease. That would be like saying you don’t want a cancer patient living next to you.”

According to Gateway’s mission statement, their homes provide “a transitional residential treatment program for adults with mental illness who are striving for independence.” The Richmond-based company operates a similar home in Fairfax, and according to Lynda Hyatt, Executive and Clinical Director at Gateway Homes, the home has received only one complaint from neighbors in its six-year existence.

When the company looked into the complaint, a trespassing incident, it was discovered that the person suspected of trespassing into a nearby yard was not a resident of Gateway. The neighbor who first reported the incident formally apologized to Gateway, Hyatt said.

Hyatt says two full-time staff members will live in the home at 101 Woodmere Drive, along with a program manager, a nurse, and a peer counselor, who will be present during daytime hours. She says the program is designed to help individuals learn to eventually live on their own.

“Our goal is to help people get back into the community,” said Hyatt. “The recovery process depends on their skills and whichever ones they need to learn, we teach.”

The Gateway home borders more than just neighborhoods. The house is located less than a third of a mile from Walshingham Academy, a private elementary and high school with a yearly tuition rate above $11,000.

In a letter to the Department of Behavioral Health and Rehabilitation Services, the government agency that licensed Gateway to operate the facility, Williamsburg City Manager Marvin Collins wrote that “state law does not prevent those charged for violent acts and sex offenses from living near a school if they were exempted by reason of insanity.”

“That leaves the city in the position of having to trust that the operators of the group home will not accept individuals who pose a threat to students of the school,” Collins wrote.

Both Hyatt and the DBHDS stated that Gateway’s program does not accept individuals who have committed such crimes, even if they were found not guilty due to their illnesses.

“To say that anyone at Gateway will be more dangerous than anyone else out there is misguided,” said David Coe, Executive Director at Colonial Behavioral Health.

Coe and CBH work to facilitate recovery and wellness for those who struggle with mental illness. CBH screens individuals before referring them to Gateway, and provides crisis management for any of the home’s residents.

“Treatment for mental illness works,” he said. “The mentally ill don’t commit violent crimes at a higher clip than the general public.”

According to a handout put together by the homeowners’ associations of Yorkshire and The Woods, Gateway entered into a lease agreement for the Woodmere property in May, and the lease was subsequently approved by the DBHDS.  Members of the homeowners’ associations said they were unaware of the living center until the first week of August, when Collins notified them.

“I just wish this had started in a more transparent way,” said Mike Dallas, a member of Yorkshire Homeowners’ Association’s Board of Directors. “The more you share information and the more you talk to people the better chance you have of success.”

Hyatt said that Gateway was approved by the city in June, and the purpose of the center was disclosed at that time.

“Gateway’s attorney and I have met with the City Manager, City Attorney and the Director of Human Services to discuss their concerns,” she said. “To my knowledge Gateway has proceeded through the process of establishing the program in accordance with the law and with code and compliance.”

A quote attributed to Cherri Spellmeyer has been removed. While the quote was said during the meeting, Spellmeyer claims she did not make such a statement.