Thursday night, after three hours of comment from both sides, the Zoning Board of Appeals closed a public hearing on a proposal by The Stonington Institute to turn 171 Rope Ferry Road into a sober house for up to 144 men.
The Zoning Board of Appeals will deliberate and possibly rule on the proposal at its next meeting, which is March 7th. Thursday night, dozens of neighbors again voiced their concerns with the proposal; a proposal The Stonington Institute admits is like nothing in the United States.
During the public hearing, lawyer and neighbor of 171 Rope Ferry Road Mike Bonnano said he could find no other existing 144-man sober house anywhere in the continental United States. When asked if that was true, Stonington Institute CEO William Aniskovich said it would be the first of his kind.
“To my knowledge, that is true,” he said.
“We could be pioneers,” Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Peter Bendfeldt jokingly responded, to which the audience loudly retorted, “No”.
The exchange mirrored many throughout the three-hour meeting. Dozens of residents would speak against the proposal, than The Stonington Institute’s lawyer, Thomas Londregan, would respond with his own arguments. That process repeated itself several times throughout the night.
The Zoning Board of Appeals also accepted a report by the Planning and Zoning Commission and Waterford Police Chief Murray Pendleton, both of which recommended to reject the application. In his response, Londregan chastised both reports, particularly Pendleton’s, saying it was full of conjecture instead of fact.
The Zoning Board of Appeals closed the public hearing on the proposal Thursday night. It will deliberate on the proposal at its next meeting on March 7th.
The Case For
The Stonington Institute is asking for a use variance to turn 171 Rope Ferry Road, which is currently a vacant nursing home, into a sober house. The sober house would provide temporary housing for up to 144 male voluntary patients recovering from substance abuse, as now as The Stonington Institute has its patients in small sober houses throughout southeastern Connecticut.
Londregan argued that the use should be changed at the property because all of the allowed uses at the property are unreasonable and the least invasive use not permitted in the zone is a sober house for up to 144 men. The building was a nursing home, and he argued a sober house is a less intense use than a nursing home.
“What we are proposing is a supporting living environment for people with an addiction,” he said. “And what was there was a supporting living environment for people with medical needs.”
Londregan said that the law requires the town to allow the use because of the Fair Housing Act and the American With Disabilities Act. He argued it would be discriminatory to allow housing for one type of person under the regulation, in this case the elderly, and not another, men recovering from drug addictions.
Londregan dismissed reports by the Planning and Zoning Commission, Pendleton and the neighbors as based on conjecture instead of fact and discriminatory. He also argued the assumption that men recovering from drug addictions are likely to commit crimes is a false assumption.
The Case Against
The neighbors of 171 Rope Ferry Road, Pendleton and the Planning and Zoning Commission disagreed with Londregan on almost every account. They said the proposal would hurt property values, would increase crime and does not fit in with the neighborhood, three hurdles that The Stonington Institute must prove to get their proposal approved.
Additionally, they said The Stonington Institute's main hardship – or the need for the use variance – was that it was not sold in two years. Thomas Collier, an attorney and a neighbor of 171 Rope Ferry Road, said that economics is not a legal hardship, and most people haven’t been able to sell their property in the past few years.
“This is an easy one,” he said. “He doesn’t have a hardship.”
He added that nothing Pendleton or the Planning and Zoning Commission said was discriminatory. Instead, what they are saying is that a sober house is a much different use than a nursing home, and the proposal should be rejected because the different use will increase crime, lower property values and will not fit in with a residential neighborhood. He added that there are many permitted uses that could work at the property, such as a hospital, health clinic or private school.