Thursday night, the Zoning Board of Appeals agreed they do not want 171 Rope Ferry Road to turn into temporary housing for up to 144 male recovering drug addicts.
However, the board agreed to delay taking any action on a proposal by The Stonington Institute until their next meeting, which is April 4th. The board agreed they wanted Town Attorney Rob Avena to write up a thorough report on why the proposal should be denied, which would stand up in court.
“We don’t need a boarding house in a residential neighborhood like that,” Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Peter Bendfeldt said. “But in order to get it right, we should continue (our decision) to April… If we are going to deny it, we are going to deny it in a way that would make sense in an appeal.”
The Stonington Institute, a for-profit rehab center, is asking the town for a use variance at 171 Rope Ferry Road to allow a temporary housing facility for up to 144 men recovering from drug addictions. The Zoning Board of Appeals held two public hearings on the matter, and dozens of neighbors spoke against the proposal, saying it would increase crime and hurt property values.
Thursday night, the board’s members voiced similar concerns. However, Town Attorney Rob Avena said the case was brimming with legal issues, and the reason for the denial needed to be legal so it would hold up in an appeal.
Specifically, Avena worried that The Stonington Institute would argue that the Zoning Board of Appeals denied the application because they didn’t want recovering drug addicts living in a residential neighborhood. Avena said that could be a violation of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and could be overturned by a federal court.
Avena said that recovering drug addicts are a protected population, and would therefore need to be treated the same as any other group. Using an example, he said the reasons the board listed to deny the proposal by The Stonington Institute for recovering drug addicts living there would have to apply if there was a group of nuns who wanted to use it for a similar purpose.
“You are not judging who is in front of you, you are judging your zoning regulations,” Avena said.
Reasons for Denial
To gain a use variance, The Stonington Institute has to prove three things: all the other uses already allowed in the zone are not possible, that the proposed use is the best alternative and that the use fits in with the character of the neighborhood. Avena said use variances are rarely granted as it is a high standard for an applicant to meet.
Avena asked the board what concerns they had, unrelated to the people who will be living there. Zoning Board of Appeals member Cathy Newlin gave a laundry list of concerns, saying it would impact the surrounding neighborhood, other permitted uses allowed in the zone are possible and the proposal doesn’t preserve the character of the neighborhood.
171 Rope Ferry Road was a nursing home that held 90 people. It has sat vacant for two years, and The Stonington Institute is suggesting that those two years of vacancy prove that no allowed use at the property is reasonable.
The Stonington Institute is proposing to consolidate its 13 group homes into this one facility, and house all of its patients in this one building. Patients would just sleep at the facility, and have treatment during the day at other facilities. The Stonington Institute has said that no such housing facility exists anywhere else in the United States, at least to their knowledge.