A rural Powell couple has dropped their appeal of a Park County Commission decision that will allow a neighbor to build a group home near their property. The couple, Scott and Stefani Hicswa, say the appeal was only meant to act as a kind of placeholder while some language was clarified and that it was not intended to be a challenge to the commission’s decision.
Over the objections of the Hicswas and several other neighbors, county commissioners unanimously approved a special use permit in August that will allow Julie Forconi to build and operate a group home for up to four people with disabilities.
Forconi’s property is located near the intersection of Road 13 and Lane 11H, about 4 miles southwest of Powell. The Hicswas are the closest neighbors and they — along with other area residents — expressed concerns about whether the group home would fit in with the neighborhood, bring too much traffic and drive down property values.
Commissioners, however, didn’t see how the facility would be much different from any other house; Forconi said it will simply look like a four-bedroom home. Supporters said people with disabilities should be free to live where they want — and Forconi says there’s “a great need” for such a facility.
Through the long, contentious approval process with the county government, “You can’t believe the people who have called me; neighbors have called me; the people that have stopped by that I have never met before; the messages on Facebook from families; ... in Powell a group of parents that have special needs children contacted me,” Forconi said in a recent interview. “The people that contacted me that personally have children that they have nowhere for them to go, I was just dumbfounded.”
Her group home will serve people who can’t care for themselves, potentially ranging from people with minor mental problems to people with Parkinson’s disease to people with severe brain injuries.
Commissioners approved the group home plans on Aug. 15. The permit allowed Forconi to serve up to four “disabled adults” — and that wording worried the Hicswas, said their attorney, Brad Bonner of Cody.
“Our concern was that use of the term ‘disabled adults’ technically would permit establishment of a residential treatment home for sex offenders or a prison rehab or half-way house — something the applicant made clear during proceedings she did not intend,” Bonner said in an email.
County officials agreed to change the permit to refer to “residents having mental and/or physical disabilities” and commissioners approved the revised language on Sept. 19.
“We believe changing the language to specify the applicant may establish a facility for ‘residents having mental and/or physical disabilities’ is appropriate because this term legally does not include sex offenders or prison rehab,” said Bonner, who is a part-owner of the Tribune.
However, on Sept. 14, before the commissioners made their decision, the Hicswas filed an appeal in Park County District Court; that was to preserve their right to challenge the county’s permit, as it was set to become final 30 days from the commissioners’ initial approval.
“It was never our intention [to appeal] anywhere along the way, but the decision [to change the permit’s wording] hadn’t been made so we had to do a notice of appeal just in case,” said Stefani Hicswa, who is the president of Northwest College.
Hicswa added that, “We — all of our neighbors, it wasn’t just Scott and I — stated what our position was and the Forconis stated their positon, and I think that the county commissioners really looked at the situation and made the best decision possible considering the circumstances and so we are satisfied with the outcome.”
Adding confusion to the situation was the fact that the Tribune wrote about the appeal in late September, after the commission had addressed the Hicswas’ concerns.
A lawyer representing the Hicswas notified Park County’s District Court on Oct. 24 that they were dismissing their appeal.
That officially closed a contentious county approval process that drew heated remarks from supporters and opponents. Many neighbors spoke out against the proposal. Nearly everyone in attendance at a July commission meeting on the group home stood in a display of disapproval; one area resident said they’d heard no neighbors support the project.
Forconi, however, said “the support that I received ... way outnumbered the people that were against it.”
“I had neighbors baking bread and bringing it down and people calling me and people I’ve never met that live right here on this block and saying that they didn’t agree with anything that was being said and they wanted [me] to know that I had their support if I needed anything,” Forconi said, adding, “They just chose not to make a big scene about it.”
Forconi first got involved with group homes after completing nursing school, working at several in Minnesota to provide care for higher-need patients.
“When I got here, there wasn’t any [similar group homes] that I was aware of, so it’s always been in the back of my mind to do this,” she said. “And the timing was just right for me to go for it.”
Forconi hopes to have her facility ready for clients by April, though “that might be pushing it a little bit, because we got such a late start this fall.”