A proposal to tighten restrictions on group homes in Evanston ran into considerable skepticism from Plan Commissioners Wednesday night before they sent it to their zoning subcommittee for further study.

Plan Commission Chair Colby Lewis said he wasn’t even sure whether group homes are a problem.

“I have a stepson in a home who’s autistic,” Lewis said, adding that he didn’t believe people with autism should be excluded or discriminated against in the zoning ordinance.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, sought the review of the city’s group home regulations.

A proposed group home in her ward at 2233 Sherman Ave. was blocked by the city two years ago because it was within 900 feet of another group home.

But Fiske says the operator, who provides treatment for young adults with substance abuse and mental health issues, then chose to reduce the property’s occupany to no more than three individuals so it doesn’t fall under the city’s group home rules — which apply to properties with four or more residents.

Fiske told the panel there are at least two other similar three-or-less group homes either proposed or operating now in her ward.

It was not clear from the commission’s discussion what risks the separation rule is designed to guard against, although Commisisoner Andrew Pigozzi suggested it might not be desirable for the residents of a group home to have all the other houses on the block also be group homes — that they should be better integrated into the larger community.

Sue Loellbach.

Sue Loellbach of Connections for the Homeless said she was concerned about the idea, included in a staff report, of requiring special use approval for more group homes. Currently only some types of group homes in certain zones require that approval while others can be established by right if they meet the distance requirement.

Loellbach said she was opposed to the idea of making it more difficult or expensive to establish such facilities.

Most of the city’s existing group homes are operated by Rimland Services, which provides housing for adults with autism.

Rimland’s executive director, Carolyn Keel, said the non-profit has operated in Evanston since 1971. “We’ve worked with the city for a long time,” Keel said, adding that the process of setting up a new group home “usually goes pretty smoothly.

The agency now provides housing for about 100 people. she said, with 13 homes in Evanston and a few more in other suburban communities.

Homes Rimland operates, she said have between two and eight residents.

Complicating any potential revision to the city’s rules is a federal appeals court decision earlier this year barring Springfield, Illinois, from enforcing a restriction that required group homes to be at least 600 feet from each other. Fiske said that in the wake of that ruling Springfield has opted to drop its distance limit for group homes.

Related stories

Tighter limits on group homes proposed (11/14/18)

City moves to block group home on Sherman (7/12/16)

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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