Questions about Middlesex home’s future remain

Gwen Chamberlain

More than seven months after learning friends and neighbors would have to move from their South Vine Valley home, people in Middlesex still don’t know what the future holds for the house operated as an Individual Residential Alternative (IRA) group home.

However, a spokesperson for the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities has confirmed that OPWDD Commissioner Courtney Burke has declared that no one who is listed on the state’s sex offender registry will move into a now vacant group home in Middlesex.

That may ease the concerns of people in the neighborhood around the home at 6166 South Vine Valley Road, but questions about the actions taken by state officials since last fall, and the future use of the home remain.

Documents obtained by The Chronicle-Express through freedom of information requests appear to point to an effort to convert the Middlesex house to a use that meets different Life Safety Code regulations.

Last November, OPWDD officials said that the Middlesex home where nine adults with developmental disabilities lived until this February, and similar houses in Chemung, Veteran, Corning, Campbell, Savona and West Sparta were identified as having inadequate water storage tanks for their sprinkler systems.

According to Travis Proulx, a spokesperson for OPWDD, the existing tanks, which provide enough water to feed the sprinkler system for four to eight minutes, do not meet the requirements of the Life Safety Code for those types of residences.

Because of that, and other life safety code deficiencies, state officials determined in December that the Middlesex residents needed to move to new homes.

That’s when people in the community began asking for details, specifically asking why the men and women could not move back into the home after renovations and upgrades were complete. That question has not been answered, and because of confidentiality issues, state officials say they are not able to discuss specific details about individuals.

The Chronicle-Express has been unable to get information from family members about how the former Middlesex residents are doing since their moves. However, Lynn Lersch, who got to know the residents through her volunteer work at the home, has been able to visit four of them in their new homes. One woman told Lersch, “I should have done this (moved) years ago,” noting her quality of life has improved.

Lersch said others looked happy and stated they were happy, but they asked about their former housemates.

Tense exchanges between the community members and state officials, and information about the pending closure of the Monroe Developmental Center in Rochester led to speculation that the state had plans to house people listed on the sexual offender registry in the South Vine Valley house.

Members of the Middlesex community have held meetings since January with Finger Lakes Developmental Disabilities Service Office (DDSO) officials, as well as Assemblyman Phil Palmesano and Sen. Thomas O’Mara. They have sent letters to OPWDD and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and asked Middlesex town authorities to get involved with decisions about the house’s future use. O’Mara and Palmesano met with Burke in February, but both still felt the community’s concerns were not being addressed.

The paper trail

A review of the most recent documents from OPWDD inspections of the house and program reveals no negative issues with the structure’s safety capacity until late 2011.

Forms released by  OPWDD show that the office’s surveyors, whose role is to review records and inspect the facility to ensure the programs meet state regulations, documented deficiencies in the alarm system and questioned the fire rating of wall coverings in hallways and a bedroom in Oct. 26, 2011. Prior to that, the only issue noted by surveyors was in 2009, when surveyors found no deficiencies, but noted that a bathroom vent needed cleaning. Between 2001 and 2009, no issues were noted during surveyor visits. In 2001, the surveyors said there were several places where light could be seen through the cinderblock foundation.

It wasn’t until Dec. 1, 2011 when issues began to appear in OPWDD documents. A surveyor noted a need to treat the wood paneling; add a smoke detector in the janitor’s room; finish the walls in the hall with sheetrock and hold the attic hatch in place with rated material.

On Dec. 7, 2011, that surveyor noted the renovations were completed and the home thus “currently meets the 2000 LSC (life safety code) existing board and care (Chapter 33) at the fast/slow level.

None of the OPWDD documents reviewed by The Chronicle-Express indicated any deficiencies with the house’s fire suppression system, or with the home’s sunken living room. Yet, OPWDD and DDSO officials told members of the community and family members in early February that those are two of the major problems with the home.

Proulx explains that two different assessment programs were involved with the findings. The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York engineering study, conducted outside the realm of the OPWDD survey process, identified the inadequacies at some of the older group homes in the Finger Lakes region. “Which is what resulted in OPWDD’s action plan (a plan for improvements at all of the homes),” he adds.

In fact, the Dormitory Authority had identified the need to install a new underground water storage tank and piping, along with a new interior sprinkler system much earlier. A Procurement Opportunity Information form found on the DASNY website lists a proposal due date of Oct. 12, 2011. It’s not clear when that form was posted.

So the questions that have not been answered revolve around one key issue: If state officials knew in mid-2011, and most likely before that, that the house required extensive fire suppression improvements, why were family members of the nine residents in Middlesex not informed until December?

When asked if the residents of the six other homes which need similar improvements would be moved, Proulx said the Middlesex residents are the only residents who needed to be moved to new homes.

“The evacuation capacities of the individuals who lived in the Middlesex home are not the same as in these other homes,” he wrote in a July email.

Proulx also explains, “More than 40 residents have lived in the Middlesex IRA since OPWDD purchased the property. The most recent residents of the home moved out because we could not implement adequate abatement strategies to the site that would assure their safety and mitigate the physical shortcomings of that property.

“Tank capacity was not our only concern with this home... we discovered other issues, such as the restrictive nature of the layout. For instance, the home has a 1950s-style sunken living room which would further inhibit the ability of the former residents to evacuate quickly and safely in the event of an emergency,” Proulx wrote.

Which code?

While all of the 2011 and earlier documents refer to Chapter 33 of the Life Safety Code, a Jan. 23, 2012 document outlining the corrections planned for each of the seven homes refers to meeting the criteria in a different portion of the Life Safety Code — Chapter 19, Health Care Occupancy designation. The document does state “all seven sites will maintain current LSC designation until sprinkler/ tank project is complete.” It also notes that each site’s evacuation capability would be reviewed “at least every six months and/or when individuals and their abilities/needs change.”

Renovations on the Middlesex home were expected to begin in the spring, while work on the other six homes is expected to begin in the fall.

OPWDD officials were not able to provide details about the anticipated completion of renovations before print deadline.

Likewise, they were not able to provide details about the potential new occupants of the home, or when they might move in.

Proulx says officials at the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, along with officials at each of the local fire departments for the other six homes, have been notified of all the abatement efforts and new compliance standards.

Last June, OPWDD and OFPC announced plans for OFPC to conduct fire and Life Safety Code inspections at all of the state-operated homes, as well as those operated by private organizations like Arc and Catholic Charities.

The 2012 state budget includes $50 million for fire safety upgrades in some of the more than 6,200 group homes operated or overseen by OPWDD.

OPWDD recently announced that 100 homes around the state are being identified as most in need of renovations to meet the safety standards. Whether other residents have been moved from any of those 100 homes, and if the seven Finger Lakes region homes are included in that list of 100  is not clear.

“This administration has moved forward with an aggressive plan to make upgrades to homes that will benefit from enhanced safety features,” explains Proulx, adding, “Outside of this specific funding stream, we have a rigorous process that includes onsite safety inspections in all state and nonprofit operated homes, and are continually looking for ways to make the system even safer than it is today.”