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Firetree, Norwalk, getting ready to lock horns over federal prisoner halfway house

A display put out in September to attract Quintard Avenue neighbors to a meeting with Mayor Harry Rilling and Acting Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn features the news that two felons escaped a Firetree halfway house in Pennsylvania. (Contributed photo)

A display put out in September to attract Quintard Avenue neighbors to a meeting with Mayor Harry Rilling and Acting Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn features the news that two felons escaped a Firetree halfway house in Pennsylvania. (Contributed photo)

NORWALK, Conn. – Expect a legal battle with Firetree, Mayor Harry Rilling said to a Quintard Avenue resident this week, regarding the company’s desire to open a halfway house for federal prisoners on the street.

Firetree Ltd., a Pennsylvania nonprofit, on Jan. 13 submitted a request for a tenant occupancy permit and certificate of Zoning compliance for 17 Quintard Ave., the former Pivot House, after being rebuffed by the city in August following an outcry by neighbors.

The Zoning Department is working with Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann to craft a response, “knowing that the next step will most likely be an appeal of the zoning officers decision if the permit is denied,” Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn wrote to Rilling.

Rilling forwarded Wrinn’s note to neighbors on Monday, saying, “We are preparing our response as the use is still not permitted.  This will most likely be appealed in court and we will need neighborhood support.”

Firetree’s plan to open a halfway house for federal prisoners prompted much neighborhood opposition last summer – after the company completed renovations on the former Pivot House.

Firetree paid $429,000 for the property because Norwalk indicated that it would get approval for a Zoning permit, Attorney George Bishop wrote in paperwork submitted with the Jan. 13 application. The company spent $500,000 to complete renovations which had been approved by Planning and Zoning; building inspectors approved the work but the city repeatedly denied requests for a of zoning compliance and a certificate of occupancy, he said.

“It is our belief that a certificate of occupancy should have been issued, in August 2016, upon completion of improvements to the property, and that this tenant occupancy permit is not necessary for Firetree to obtain a certificate of occupancy for 17 Quintard Ave.,” Bishop wrote in the application. “… In meeting with you on October 26 you informed us that this is the correct application to use for ‘tenant occupancy permit,’ although we could not find any references to ‘tenant occupancy permits’ on the zoning permit application or in the Norwalk Zoning regulations.”

Quintard Avenue residents suspect that Firetree plans to lock federal prisoners in its facility.

“Firetree has executed a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to provide halfway house services for federal offenders being released to Fairfield County, Connecticut,” Bishop wrote. “The contract was executed after Firetree successfully responded to a Request for Proposals issued by the BOP. Firetree will not operate or use the Property as an Alternative Incarceration Center (AIC).”

The abundant legalese that accompanies the application contains many assertions that Firetree will offer the same type of services as Pivot House did, operating the same nonconforming charitable use that Pivot offered for 20 years.

Pivot Ministries Executive Director Anthony Kiniry, in an affadivit filed with the application, said, “Most of the clients served by Pivot had recently been released from prison, were on probation, parole, or supervised release, or have otherwise had direct contact with the criminal justice system.”

“Pivot did not have a license to conduct any kind of treatment at the Property for drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues,” Kiniry said. “Rather, the Property has been operated continuously as a transitional living facility with various support services and supervision for individuals who needed a group setting to facilitate their rehabilitation and to return as functional members of society. I believe that Pivot’s use of the Property could also be described accurately as a halfway house.”

“Firetree was formed in 1991 as a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation with the intent to provide quality transitional services to individuals associated with the criminal justice system,” Bishop wrote. “Statistically, chemical abuse is a direct or indirect cause of criminal behavior in approximately 90% of the U.S. prison population.”

Rilling, in speaking to neighbors in September, said Pivot House had a maximum of 15 people in a spiritual, religious, drug rehab facility, but Firetree was planning to house 19 prisoners at the outset and possibly add two female prisoners later.

“To the best of my knowledge, the Property has always been used by Pivot as a transitional living facility,” Kiniry said in his affidavit. “The residents living at the Property were not ‘locked-in.’ They could leave the Property at any time to find work, perform community service, or to obtain counseling beyond that offered by Pivot. The Property’ s transitional living facility regularly had 17 clients living on the premises, and it could accommodate up to 19 clients at any given time. Three Pivot staff members worked at the Property (a house supervisor; a day monitor; and a night monitor).”

“Many of the clients were on probation or parole, and had regular obligations to meet with court and corrections system officials. Pivot had a full-time employee at the Property overseeing court dockets and parole office visits for all residents,” Kiniry said.

Rilling, in September, said Norwalk Zoning regulations prohibit “anybody under the supervision of the Department of Corrections” in the neighborhood.

“They were issued a permit to renovate the existing facility,” Wrinn said in a September email. “Nothing was given to allow a new operator to occupy. If a new operator is taking over, they need to file a tenant occupancy permit and show that they comply with the use. If and when they come with that application, (which will require specific information as to the use, both previous and proposed) it will be reviewed and a determination of compliance or non-compliance made.”

“They have invested a lot of money in the place. They are going to pushback and I am sure that we haven’t heard the last. But we are prepared to defend our Zoning regulations,” Rilling said to the neighbors.

Neighbors continued to press, and State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) offered some thoughts.

“As the mayor, he is not allowed to say as much as he might want to,” Duff said. “But if Firetree…  thinks it’s the same use then they will argue that however they argue that. But I think here in one spot, you’ve got local, state, federal folks, all three layers of government, all very much on the same page, going in the same direction … I think that sends a very loud and strong message.”

“Believe me, we have a wonderful file that’s in place,” Rilling said eventually.

“They can’t expand the use that was here before,” Rilling said. “The bottom line is the prohibition is ‘against anybody under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.’ Then the maximum allowed use – they are researching documents right now because you can imagine going back to 1976… trying to find documents that outline exactly what process took place to get them here and what their limitations are.”

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2 comments

JoAnn Smith Deitz February 9, 2017 at 2:48 pm

Two Points: Pivot Ministries represented itself in 1976 as “Faith Based Treatment for Addictions” in applying for a variance for 17 Quintard. If Pivot was using it as transitional housing for 15 people (Zoning regulations permit 10) from the criminal justice system, that was also in violation its variance and of zoning regulations and therefore illegal. If Firetree and Pivot, in applying for various permits for 17 Quintard, said the building would have “same use” (Faith Based) it would appear that Firetree misrepresented its intentions as it already had a formal contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons — an illegal use. We neighbors accepted Pivot’s activities and Church Services on Sundays because we wanted to support people of faith who were praying. Firetree is a completely different organization.

Jeffrey Deitz February 9, 2017 at 4:04 pm

Once again, Firetree Ltd, a Pennsylvania-based non-profit already under investigation in its home state for misappropriation of public funds, is trying to sneak a Bureau of Prison-funded operation into 17 Quintard Avenue without going through the requisite special permit, zoning variance hearing.

Norwalk zoning regulations clearly prohibit halfway houses for individuals under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons in a Zone C residential neighborhood. See article 2, 140. 118-1450.

Intending all along to operate 17 Quintard as a prison re-entry facility, Firetree Ltd purchased the property, claiming it would operate for the “same use” as its previous owner Pivot Ministries, even though Firetree Ltd itself advertised on its website that 17 Quintard would be a reentry program for individuals transitioning from prison.

Pivot Ministries operated under a 1976 variance for a faith-based drug and alcohol halfway house. At most, zoning regulations limit the number of residents at halfway houses to ten, yet under cover of darkness, Firetree was preparing to house nearly twenty prisoners and several staff when neighbors discovered Firetree had no intention of operating for “same use.” At that point Norwalk zoning agreed not to issue a Certificate of Occupancy.

Now, still claiming “same use” in order to obviate the full zoning variance hearing that would forever doom their enterprise at 17 Quintard, Firetree is claiming it will operate a drug and alcohol program for prisoners at Quintard. The fact is that the operations at 17 Quintard would remain funded by and under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons. There is no way that Firetree Ltd should be allowed to operate at 17 Quintard without the requisite public hearing(s) to consider a application for a special permit to operate in residential neighborhood.

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