This is an open letter to the Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals:
My wife, Kathy Younkins, and I, Robert Weiner, have owned a house on Quintard Avenue since 2002, where we live with our 9-year-old son. We are professionals who relocated from Manhattan to Norwalk, to live a peaceful existence along beautiful Norwalk Harbor. We have seen the neighborhood continue to improve throughout those years.
I am on the leadership team for Quintard Avenue and am writing to assure you that most residents of Quintard Avenue and nearby areas are adamantly against allowing Firetree, LTD to open at 17 Quintard a halfway house for felons who have either been paroled or given supervised release. We oppose this facility as one that should not be placed in a residential area, especially a neighborhood like ours where dozens of young children live nearby who will be adversely affected and restricted in where they could play. Weekday mornings children gather nearby to wait for school buses. The chilling effect a halfway house for felons would have and the psychological harm it could do to frightened children could be immediate and irreversible.
Below we discuss how Firetree and their attorneys are misrepresenting their planned usage, their rights to such usage and Norwalk’s zoning regulations. We also discuss a number of other reasons their application and appeal should be rejected outright.
Firetree makes a number of false claims in their zoning application and appeal. These claims are made simply to bolster their case rather than with regard to the truth; this speaks to whether any of their future claims can be relied upon.
1. “Same Use” Claim
Firetree claims that their planned use is the same as that of the prior owner, Pivot Ministries, in order to try to avoid current zoning regulations. Norwalk Zoning has repeatedly told them that their use is new and different and requires a Special Permit/Exception.
A. Pivot ran a faith-based ministry and reform operation at 17 Quintard; Firetree is not a faith-based ministry.
B. Pivot did not contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons or any correctional institution to house released felons; this is, however, Firetree’s planned usage as spelled out in the $5.6 million of federal contracts they have obtained for this facility and the descriptions of Federal Bureau of Prisons Re-entry Centers. (See Firetree Fairfield County BofP Award).
C. According to reports from abutting neighbors, Pivot housed a small, single-digit number of residents at a time; Firetree speaks of housing 18-19 people at a time which would exceed local zoning limits for any halfway house.
D. Pivot worked with drug addicts who may or may not have had criminal records; Firetree’s residents will all be felons still beholden to the Bureau of Prisons
2. Grandfathered Non-Conforming Use Claim
Firetree claims that Pivot’s non-conforming zoning use dating back to 1975, and pre-dating current zoning regulations which may have disallowed its use, should allow Firetree to open its halfway house without the need for a Special Permit/Exception. This argument rests on the “same use” argument debunked above. Even if same use were allowed, there are limits to grandfathering of non-conforming use when property ownership changes. Furthermore, the usage allowed must not expand, yet Firetree has expanded the beds and the number of people to be housed. In addition, grandfathering is meant to expire over time and given that the original use dates back to 1975 when this area of South Norwalk was a very different community, this time should long be considered expired. Significant time has elapsed between when Pivot stopped operating at the property and before Firetree applied for a use/tenant fit-up permit to operate within the city; this should call for a new permitting review and evaluation of whether there is any significant community support for such a facility.
3. Disabled Housing Claims
Firetree claims that this facility will be used to house “persons who have physical or social disabilities which make operation in society difficult and require the protection of a group setting.” This is nonsense and simply a precursor to a legal appeal of discrimination. The reality is that Firetree has contracted with the Bureau of Prisons to house and work with felons moved into their custody from federal prison, not disabled people for whom an entirely different set of facilities would be required. (See item 1B above for contract award details).
4. Lesser Impact Claim
Firetree argues that their operation will have the same or lesser impact on the surrounding area because of Firetree’s “strong reputation” for running “very well managed properties.” Firetree’s actual reputation is well-documented in the press throughout the areas in which they have facilities. It is one of community distrust, litigiousness and a disregard for local zoning authorities. Far from a lesser impact, the rumor of Firetree’s arrival has already depressed nearby property values, caused at least one resident to leave and will encourage others to leave.
Additional Reasons to Reject Firetree’s Zoning Application, Appeal and Special Permit
Now that we have addressed Firetree’s own arguments for appeal, here are additional reasons from the community to deny Firetree’s commercial operation of the property.
5. Failure to Obtain Community Support
Throughout this multi-year process so far, Firetree has not once called, written or held any event to gather input from nor to inform the majority of residents on Quintard Avenue and surrounding streets, despite Bureau of Prisons requirements for its re-entry center contractors to garner neighborhood support in order to operate. Firetree did try to recruit people for a Community Board but when these people found out the actual use planned by Firetree and the local sentiment against it, they all quickly quit the Board.
6. Intent of Norwalk Zoning regulations are to prohibit halfway houses for criminals in residentially zoned C neighborhoods
Section 118-350, Subsection 2h (C Residence Zones) of the Norwalk Zoning Code is applicable to 17 Quintard. It allows halfway houses by Special Permit under certain conditions. It specifically excludes those associated with the Department of Corrections, clearly implying exclusion of any halfway houses serving convicted criminals.
Although we support the mission and idea of halfway houses, we believe that any such houses for felons should be placed away from residential neighborhoods, especially those with children. The main requirements for any such locations are access to public transportation and to work, both of which can be easily obtained from a location in a commercial or industrial area. Many other cities have located halfway houses in commercial or industrial areas. For example, Firetree’s own facility in Syracuse, NY is right by the interstate. (See Syracuse Halfway House Location).
Firetree has no protected right to operate in a particular location contravening local zoning regulations and community well-being. Given that our local and state representatives have all come out against this facility (see Officials Against Firetree Halfway House), there is no significant support for such an operation in our residential area. In a similar case in Syracuse, NY, a halfway house was disallowed because it was near a well-developed neighborhood but not even inside it; Senator Schumer helped stop this facility from opening. (See Schumer Opposes. See also Permit Denial where Hamburg, PA denies Orange Stones/Alcat, a Firetree subsidiary, a zoning permit). U.S. Representative John Katco said, “A halfway house is simply not conducive to the vitality and well-being of the existing neighborhood. That’s why I’ve made the continued safety of this neighborhood a top priority.” (See Katco Against).
7. Local zoning limits any halfway house to a maximum of 12 residents
In Firetree’s own submissions to the Board, they repeatedly talk about housing 18-19 felons (excluding staff).
8. Local zoning minimum space requirements would be exceeded
Local zoning regulations for halfway houses require 250 square feet minimum per resident. With 19 residents, that is 4,750 square feet. Way more than the space that exists, is zoned for or could be provided. People who have seen the finished space noted how tightly packed it seemed residents would be; even the porch has been enclosed to stuff beds within. Firetree cannot provide the requisite space and therefore cannot legally operate the facility at their own specified capacity.
9. Firetree is litigious with cities that let them operate
Firetree uses lots of the money it receives from government contracts to sue municipalities and local residents who oppose their use of particular properties or constrain their operation therein. First, they sue to get around local zoning limits or sue the neighbors to try to intimidate them from standing against a Firetree operation. Then once they have a facility in place, they often sue the city or town for any number of reasons. Litigiousness is their standard way of operating and the large value of their contracts allows them to spend considerable resources on lawyers. A yes vote will simply encourage more of this bad behavior and will negatively affect Norwalk for years to come. However, when cities push back, Firetree eventually tires. As Firetree’s founder, Alan Ertel, noted in another case: “Unfortunately, we just can’t spend any more time or money,” Ertel said. “We’re using money that should’ve been used for treatment of people for doing other things. We just don’t want to do that.” (See Ertel Tires of Suing Cities).
10. Non-profit funds misappropriation
In a lawsuit brought against Firetree, the former Pennsylvania Attorney General accused Firetree of misappropriating public funds for the personal enrichment of Firetree’s owners and their families. It is noteworthy that Firetree’s own in-house attorney/general counsel was so incensed at the behavior that she became a whistleblower and turned state’s evidence at huge personal cost and peril.
“The Attorney General’s allegation that non-profit organizations soliciting and accepting contributions from the public engaged in a prolonged course of conduct entailing unlawfully diverting corporate assets and resources to serve the interests of insider individuals.”
— I, Gary A. Shade, Senior Financial Investigator, being duly sworn according to law, herby state that I am a Senior Financial Investigator with the Office of Attorney General, Charitable Trusts and Organizations Section, that I am authorized to make this verification on behalf of the Office of Attorney General, and the facts in the Attorney General’s Complaint are true and correct to the best of my knowledge, information and belief.
Our understanding is that Firetree, rather than disputing the claims in the suit, fought to hide the information the general counsel provided, claiming it was confidential. Again, this speaks to the type of organization Firetree is. (See Whistleblower Case against Firetree).
11. Irreparable reduction in quality-of-life for local residents
A Firetree home for felons will cause a quick and long-lasting reduction in quality-of-life for its neighbors.
Firetree has stated that they will allow felons to stand around the back of the house and smoke, not far from the windows of children and play areas. Up to 19 people (excluding staff) could be infecting young children with carcinogens every day. Parents won’t know what crimes the residents have committed due to privacy laws, so they will assume the worst and will have to keep their children from going outside. Residents will have to invest in increased security. Local meetups on the sidewalks and streets will become more limited. The neighborhood will immediately and irreparably become a less desirable place to live. Residents of Shorefront Park, Harbor View and Village Creek often travel Quintard Avenue, so they will be affected as well.
A former prisoner who had been through the halfway house system became a writer. He recorded his first-hand experience and a litany of how these houses fail both prisoners and the communities they inhabit. (If you read only one article referenced herein, this is the one to read. (See Felon Halfway Houses Destroy Neighborhoods). Below is a sample quote.
“One Pennsylvania community that experienced serious problems with a halfway house was Hazleton, in Luzerne County. Community Education Centers was advised in June 2013 that its transitional facility contract in Hazleton would not be renewed – news that received the approval of community leaders and the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce, due to crimes linked to residents at the CEC-run facility. According to law enforcement records, offenders from the company’s halfway house released on passes, or who settled in the area after serving their sentences, had been involved in murders, bank robberies and numerous other crimes. Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi said that when the Hazleton facility closes it will be ‘one step toward restoring our reputation and the perception of downtown.’ Hazleton’s Police Chief, Frank DeAndrea, observed, ‘The community is going to be left with the scars of this facility. For quite some time, the people who have moved into and located into our area and the illegal businesses they set up will remain,’ citing drug sales, theft rings, prostitution and gangs as types of activities that resulted from the halfway house’s presence. ‘I recognize that this facility brought a ton of ugliness and black marks to our community, but if we can use it to better or, possibly, save another community that’s what it’s all about,’ he added.”
Clearly, this facility does not belong at this location and would be much better suited elsewhere. However, because a ministry was allowed to counsel former drug addicts on this property based on a zoning exception granted in the mid-1970s, Firetree is arguing that their use is the same and should be allowed, despite almost universal community sentiment against it. State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, Rep. Jim Himes and the area’s local Common Council members have all come out against this.
A vote against this application and appeal will maintain the upward trend on Quintard of home renovations, will maintain quality-of-life for nearby residents and will enforce proper zoning of the street as single and multi-family homes only. Please ensure that such a facility is not allowed to become a threat to the existing peaceful community. Please vote for Norwalk and keep Firetree from doing damage to yet another city and from housing felons in a space too small for their number.
Bob Weiner and Kathy Younkins