Adele Cardillo had a very personal reason for wanting an organization that serves developmentally disabled adults to succeed in getting the government’s green light for a community in South Hall County.
It could mean her nephew, Kenneth Neff, who has lived in her home since his mother died when he was 14, could live closer to her home in Reunion Country Club in South Hall.
And that was equally as important for 22-year-old Neff, who lives at a “Just” People community in Norcross. “It gets me closer to my family,” Neff said.
After a rocky start, “Just” People is now moving forward with plans to build the 158-resident development on a 21-acre site off Radford and McEver roads, just outside Flowery Branch.
Becky Dowling, the group’s founder and president, hopes the community could be opened by October 2017. It’s a project that, at buildout, could mean a $7 million to $8 million economic impact, she said.
The village would feature a variety of housing units, as plans also call for up to 10,000 square feet of commercial areas, including a cafe, snack bar, personal care salons and sports training areas — mostly suited to the disabled residents on the property.
“We’re in the process of arranging the closing (on the property),” she said. “We’re really hoping we can use a lot of Hall County businesses to help us put this together.”
The contract for the land “was contingent on us getting the (proper) zoning,” Dowling said.
And that was a tough battle.
Opponents signed petitions and otherwise lined up to speak against “Just” People’s proposal to put a community in the area.
They complained about the development’s potential impact on surrounding property values and traffic in the frequently congested area, common concerns in rezoning requests.
But making this fight different was the clientele who would be served on the property.
“Every day, you turn on the TV and hear about mentally ill people shooting people, and there’s a school (nearby),” said one resident, Neil Clark, when the issue first appeared on Sept. 8 before the Hall County Planning Commission “I don’t think anybody would want to live close to that.”
A “Just” People supporter, Krista Goodrich, harshly criticized opposition for spreading misinformation about the plans.
Project foes “were using a Nazi Germany tactic of instilling fear in people of a certain class in order to support your cause,” she said, speaking to the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 24.
Both governmental boards gave their OK to the project, with the commissioners having final say.
Speaking last week by phone, Dowling choked up as she recalled how she felt when the commission approved the rezoning.
“I was like, ‘Thank you, God, you’re still looking after my people,’” she said.
Dowling had been down this road of rejection before, and she said as much to the commissioners.
She said “Just” People, which began with its community in Roswell, said she wasn’t surprised or unfamiliar with “the fear of change or to people who are different moving into a community.”
The residents simply “want to live among people who understand and appreciate them and what they have to offer, where they can be themselves, be accepted and feel safe,” Dowling said.
“I’ve worked in this field 40 years and there’s never been a time I’ve felt like everybody was saying, ‘Come on in,’” she said, with a laugh.
“At the community in Roswell, that was the fifth piece of land that I tried to purchase in a five-year period that I could never get zoning on,” Dowling said. “And now, the difference in how they treat us and the welcoming feeling we have in that community is amazing.”
Dowling said that before she settled on the South Hall location, she was considering sites in Hall or Cobb County.
She has family in Hall, including daughter Kelli Salyer, “Just” People’s vice president.
She said she went in July to a Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce meeting, where, after meeting several businesspeople and hearing them speak, she walked away impressed.
“I called my son-in-law and said, ‘I know where we need to build. We need to focus on Hall County,’” Dowling said.
“I’ve been pushing for Hall County for quite some time now,” Salyer said. “Even though it’s a large county, it has a small-town feel.”
This mission is personal for her, as well. She’s the mom of an 11-year-old son with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of developmental disorder.
Salyer said her children have “learned about the differences in people in a way I never could have taught them.”
As a Reunion resident, she also knows Neff and Cardillo and encouraged his joining “Just” People.
Neff, who has emotional and mental disabilities, plus a learning disability, has found his place at the Norcross community, where he not only lives but gets paid to answer phones.
He comes home about every weekend or so, including a visit last week, Cardillo said.
The experience, particularly in answering the phones, with “Just” People “has been more enlightening than anything,” Neff said. “I just realize how many people are out there with disabilities.”
The organization’s work certainly has helped Neff, he and Cardillo said.
“I believe if it wasn’t for (Just People), I don’t know where I would be,” he said. “I know (Cardillo’s home) is always pretty much an option ... but at least I’m around my peers, who have similar disabilities and problems.”