MERIDEN — Moving would be painful and difficult, but the state Department of Mental Retardation is showing more openness to the city’s desire to take back all or part of the 67-acre Undercliff property, which is along Chamberlain Highway and near the Westfield Meriden mall.
“Maybe there’s a way for both (the city and the DMR) to be on the property,” Martin C. Zito, DMR’s chief of staff, said Friday while giving a reporter a tour of the campus. “There’s plenty of space, but people have to be sensitive to the needs of the individuals we serve and come up with solutions.”
That sensitivity is a prime concern for Zito and the more than 100 DMR employees who work at Undercliff, which is home to about 30 people year-round. That includes residents who have jobs, those who require 24-hour care and three high-security individuals who are confined to the so-called Gray Cottage.
Another seven people come to the campus each week for the popular respite program, a seven-day live-in experience that provides a vacation for the visitor and a break for his family. The program served 114 families in Greater New Haven last year, staff said.
The DMR’s two main buildings are 25 years old, but are well maintained and appear more modern than that. The insides are clean and feature a homey decor of couches and wooden tables.
Some residents live six to a suite, while others, who require 24-hour medical attention, live in smaller settings, sometimes as small as one person, depending on their needs.
One of those people is Todd Hlavac, 21, who moved to Undercliff two years ago after living at a privately run facility. Hlavac, who has mental retardation, autism and a high risk for choking, took a while to settle into his new surroundings, said his mother Karen, of Wallingford.
Talk of relocating the DMR facilities has aroused concern in Karen Hlavac, a member of Wallingford’s school board and vice chairwoman of the state Council on Mental Retardation. “This is my son’s home,” she said Friday at Todd’s bedside. “Just in the same way that people probably wouldn’t be supportive of someone taking their home, I feel I should be speaking up for him.”
Any change in routine has behavioral consequences for autistic people, Karen Hlavac said.
“He’s used to coming to this building,” she said. “He knows he lives here, and there are people who have lived here a lot longer than him. He’s part of a family, and the proximity to Mid State (Medical Center) is very important to me. He’s been in the hospital a lot recently.”
Beth Hargett, program manager at Undercliff, said DMR uses Mid State on an emergency basis, although it is convenient when a doctor orders a specialized test for a resident.
The property is midway between Hartford and New Haven and just off Interstate 691, Hargett said, reasons that both the city and state want the land.
The city says it has few other options for economic development, but Hargett says the property fits the DMR’s needs.
“Residents can access museums and restaurants,” she said of the location. “People go on walks and they see birds, trees and deer.”
The DMR occupies the portion closest to the Chamberlain Highway, the area considered the most desirable for retail. The Target store on Chamber¬lain Highway abuts the property.
There are four older brick homes behind the main build¬ings, three residences and one which is used for a day program, but the farther one ventures up the hill, the more the condition, and use, of the build¬ings varies.
The Department of Public Works controls the upper por¬tion of the campus, an area that includes mostly empty buildings.
There’s the former Cliff House center for sexually abusive boys that the Department of Children and Families shut down five years ago; storage buildings for the state police and public works; and the former Undercliff Hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium that later became the Henry D. Altobello Children and Youth Center.
Gray Cottage is on the DPW portion of the property, Zito said, and the DMR plans to expand to the so-called Blue Cottage next door, a house that was in the news in 2004 when it was revealed that state police Capt. Gregory Senick was living there for $1 per year.
Blue Cottage would be a residence or used for a day program, Zito said, not a high-security facility like Gray Cottage.
There’s plenty of space for new buildings at Undercliff, but it would cost about $15 million and be time-consuming to move the DMR either within the property or to another location.
A developer offered to build new facilities for the state a few years ago at his own cost, in exchange for developing the lower portion of the property, but Zito said state law requires that the DPW build any DMR facili¬ty that would cost more than $ 500,000.
“It would probably take two years just to design the facilities,” he said. “In my mind as a facilities person, it would be a difficult and long process to replicate. It’s not as easy as one would think to just move people.
“A welcome change”
The department wants to be a good neighbor, Zito said, and is not unaware of the city’s strong desire to build its tax base, but “our job is to advocate for the families that use our services.”
Finding a way to share the parcel would be a win-win situ¬ation, but the DMR would have to have another facility ready and built in order to move.
State Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, said he was glad to hear a more open tone coming from the department.
“That’s great news, and if they’ve had a change in attitude, it’s a welcome change,” said Gaffey, who challenged DMR officials at a meeting two weeks ago when they balked at the prospect of relocating. “I can tell you the governor’s staff were not too happy with the way the meeting was conducted, and that may be why they’re changing their tune. I think the message is getting through.”
City and state officials are scheduled to meet again April 12 to discuss the property.
Karen Hlavac has a meeting scheduled that day too, with the mental retardation council, an advisory group to the DMR commissioner.
“I’ve asked that (Undercliff) be placed on the agenda,” she said. “There are a lot of other considerations for the folks that live here.”