Concerned residents kept arriving. Soon more than 100 of them had assembled in a Centerville neighborhood Thursday evening, most of them to confront Chris Onken over his Woodbury company's attempt to open a foster home for four teenage boys with developmental and mental disabilities.
"It was a mob attitude," said Onken, president of Zumbro House. "I couldn't even answer without them yelling over me. I have never seen such vitriol and anger from a neighborhood."
On Friday, he said the plan to house the teenage boys in a foreclosed house bought for $230,000 has been scrapped.
Opponents are faulting Zumbro. Paul Lundh, a spokesman for the residents, said Zumbro caused the confrontation by failing to tell neighbors that the house at 1689 Hunters Trail was opening, to explain who would live there, and to say how residents could keep their children safe.
Zumbro's website, Lundh said, described its clients as people with aggressive and impulsive behavior who in many cases were sex offenders.
"This was the source of the outrage in the neighborhood," Lundh said. "It was so poorly executed that in the span of two days they managed to alienate more than 100 people."
Requiring Zumbro House and the residents who would be placed in Centerville to notify other residents of their presence violates the federal Fair Housing Act, said Roberta Olheim, the state ombudsman for people with mental and developmental disabilities. She said she was sorry to hear that Zumbro backed down.
"It empowers those people who say not in my back yard and has the same effect of chilling the civil rights of disabled people," she said.
The neighborhood reaction implies that existing neighbors have rights superior to new neighbors, she said. "Only now it's not the color of the skin, it's the nature of disability. We all recognize when it becomes discrimination by race, but it's more subtle when it becomes discrimination by disability."
When Anoka County officials asked the Woodbury firm to open two homes for disabled people, the Zumbro House chose Centerville.
Lundh said residents found out about Zumbro's imminent arrival on Hunters Trail earlier this week when talking with a contractor working on the house, which Zumbro bought in a deal that closed about a month ago.
On Wednesday, about 80 residents appeared at a Centerville City Council meeting demanding answers.
"Yes, people were heated up," said Mayor Mary Capra. She said she "gaveled down" to keep the crowd under control and "demanded that they stay calm and be respectful." City officials found out by "happenstance" that Zumbro had bought the house and weren't prepared for the emotion that followed, she said.
"I think all the citizens could assume is that these are individuals that have criminal backgrounds," she said. "That brought fear into them, and fear is a powerful tool."
Onken said that Zumbro House has 14 other sites, most in the south metro, and never before has been forced out of a neighborhood. He said that Zumbro chose Centerville to satisfy Anoka County's request because its east metro location is closer to Woodbury. He said Zumbro also will abandon plans to open a second house in Centerville at 6911 Dupre Road. The company was scheduled to close on that house next week.
The picture at the neighborhood meeting Thursday was one of crossed arms and clenched jaws.
Onken said he thought residents reacted so strongly in part because the Zumbro House was in an upscale neighborhood, and he said some residents mentioned concern for property values.
Even after he promised that sex offenders or people with a history of committing assaults wouldn't live in the house, Onken said, neighborhood residents refused to negotiate. Zumbro would have provided 24-hour supervision at the house, he said.
"The level of anger remained high," he said. "These are disabled folks. We can't subject them to this kind of hostility." Onken said that after he saw the neighborhood reaction, he feared for his clients' well being.
Lundh disputed that the Zumbro residents would be endangered.
"We're moral people, and the problem of where to place our less fortunate citizens is very difficult," he said. "I do know that in all matters my priority has to lie with my children. Nobody wins in this situation."
Rhonda Sivarajah, an Anoka County commissioner, said she appreciated Zumbro's "difficult predicaments" in Centerville but said county human services staff had arranged the deal without getting any policy direction from the county board. "It certainly caught me off guard because I didn't know they had done this," said Sivarajah, who chairs the human services committee.
Because of the aggressive nature of Zumbro's foster residents, the homes opening in Centerville were different than the 100 or so other foster care homes in Anoka County, Sivarajah said, and needed independent review before proceeding.
But Olheim said that the Zumbro plan fit within federal housing laws and needed no independent review, nor would it have required a zoning change. Alerting neighbors and cities to the presence of the house might be violation of the law in itself, she said.
Onken said that Anoka County had asked Zumbro to open houses to provide for residents who currently are housed outside the county.
Claire Henn is a parent whose 42-year-old mentally disabled son has been a resident of a Zumbro House in Bloomington for six years. She said she's dealt with four different corporate foster homes but that Zumbro offers the best care, including picnics and Christmas parties for its residents.
"He runs the best group homes I've ever seen," said Henn, of St. Paul. "They're well-run homes, they're well-staffed homes. I think the people in Centerville went off the deep end without really checking out who they would have in the neighborhood."
Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432