Politics & Government

Sedgwick County rejects controversial home for foster youths

After a fourth lengthy debate, a proposal for a care home for foster children near Haysville has been finally rejected by the Sedgwick County Commission.

Although Wednesday’s debate lasted more than two hours, the outcome was never really in doubt. The vote was exactly the same as the first time it came before the commission in July.

Two commissioners, Lacey Cruse and Jim Howell, favored allowing the youth care facility. Three — David Dennis, Michael O’Donnell and Pete Meitzner — were against it.

Four votes would have been needed to overcome a neighborhood protest petition and approve the group home. Because the commission had earlier sent it back to the Planning Commission for further review, three votes were enough to kill the project.

Andrea Henschel, who already cares for four foster children at the site on 8361 South Hydraulic, had sought county permission to establish a more formalized foster care facility for six youths.

Instead of living there with her two children as she does now, Henschel had planned to move to another home in Haysville.

She would have continued to provide most of the care to the foster children, but hired paid staff to provide supervision overnight and on weekends.

As they had three times before, neighbors from around the proposed project spoke in opposition.

They said a group home would lower their property values and bring a business into what is now primarily a residential neighborhood of single-family homes.

‘Mass exodus’

More than 90 percent of the residents in a 1,000-foot radius of Henschel’s house signed an official protest petition; hundreds more from outside the immediate area signed an unofficial petition.

“Fourteen years ago me and my wife moved in to a residential neighborhood and I’d like to keep it that way,” said neighbor Chuck Rupert.

“It’s a facility . . . a 24-7 staffed facility,” added neighbor Gary Chapman. “I don’t know how you consider that anything other than a business.”

He likened it to cars in a driveway.

“Four cars is a residence, six cars is a car lot,” he said. “It’s no different with the six kids.”

His wife, Kelly Chapman, told the commission that Henschel’s plan has touched off a “mass exodus” from the neighborhood.

She said she consulted a real estate agent and 12 houses have recently gone up for sale within five blocks of Henschel’s house.

“These kinds of numbers are unheard of in our neighborhood,” she said. “Any idiot can tell you that a glut of houses for sale in one area is not only going to raise a red flag to potential homebuyers, it also has incredible potential to drive the prices down of our homes.”

When pressed by Cruse, Kelly Chapman conceded that it was not known whether the residents put their homes up for sale because of the possibility of the care facility, or the ubiquitous flooding that occurred in spring and early summer when heavy rains raised the water table and flooded just about every basement in the area.

One factor

Henschel said opponents of her plan had used scare tactics to get residents to sign the petition opposing it.

“They (neighbors) have told me that they have been visited by a male in the last few months,” she said. “He’s going around scaring these people, the neighbors, into signing this petition.

“They were told the (foster children) would run loose in the neighborhood, steal property and be destructive to neighbors’ homes . . . These neighbors are not willing to come forward due to the extreme opposition of their neighbors.”

Henschel broke down in tears when she talked about the children under her care, who come from broken homes where their parents were abusive, drug addicted, incarcerated or had other issues rendering them unfit for parenthood.

“They love it at my house, they like being in this area, they love it out there,” she said. “They like the cornfield, they like to sit out there on the front porch and just look and it’s peaceful.”

Property rights issues

Greg Ferris, a development consultant working for Henschel, told the commission it’s a constitutional issue of private property rights.

He said the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that neighborhood opposition “can be one factor, but it cannot be the factor,” in denying a project.

“Neighbors’ feelings are not the only relevant topic . . . you have to get to the facts,” he said.

Ferris, a former Wichita City Council member, said the facility would have to be licensed by the state and be closely monitored for safety by both the city/county code enforcement office and the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

If there were any safety issues involving children in the home, DCF would shut it down and move them out, he said.

“Her house will probably be safer than any house in that area” because of the extra rules she’d have to follow, he said.

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