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Firetree defends its federal prisoner halfway house, threatens further legal action

Firetree LTD Vice President Amy Ertel, left, and Attorney Tom Cody, present their case to the Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday in City Hall.

Updated, 10:23 a.m.: Story expanded with one sentence regarding public speakers, detail about the institutional code, clarification about Aline Rochefort’s testimony.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk officials should have been aware that Firetree LTD was preparing to move federal prisoners into Quintard Avenue, the company’s lawyer said Thursday.

Firetree, before committing to buying the former Pivot House, informed Mayor Harry Rilling, then-Common Council President Doug Hempstead and Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik of its plans, Attorney Tom Cody told the Zoning Board of Appeals, seeking to reverse the Zoning department’s decision not to allow the federal prisoners’ halfway house to open at 17 Quintard Ave.

Cody’s zinger came after two hours of argument, testimony and evidence presentation, punctuated here and there by laughter from the audience.

“The remedies that are available under this federal statute include compensatory and punitive damages and recovery of attorney’s fees,” Cody said. “It’s a serious matter and Firetree in good faith has been working hard at this… (it) has committed in hard cash or lost revenue $2 million to date. So, it is very important that this relief be granted by this Board.”

ZBA Chairman Andy Conroy adjourned the hearing after 3.5 hours without getting to a vote. Firetree presented an argument via a letter two hours before the hearing, and Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann needed time to research the legalities, he said.

He had also decided to end the proceedings at 11 p.m., he said, informing the people filling the Common Council chambers that they could still submit comments, and testify when the hearing continues on May 18.

Diane Lauricella, one of the last speakers, stepped aside to allow a Quintard resident to speak to the ZBA, in case she could not make it next time.

Marie Salkie first asked everyone who was against the proposal to stand up; most audience members did.

Then Salkie broke down into tears, explaining that she lives right next door to the proposed halfway house, has two small children and is six months pregnant.

“I want to go home and relax, but will I be able to do that with this next door to me? I cry because I worry about the children,” she said.

Cody, beginning his presentation, called a two-page history presented to the Board by Zoning Inspector Aline Rochefort “a tiny percentage of the events that have led us to this appeal.”

ZBA Firetree 20170505

A member of Firetree’s legal team hands out binders to Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals members, drawing laughter from the audience.

Commissioners were presented with thick 3-ring binders of evidence and Cody went over the history of Zoning in regard to halfway houses, the history of Pivot House.

“The drug and rehab part of their mission was being accomplished through a halfway house service or form of living. that is what was going on,” Cody said.

Firetree maintains that its facility for federal prisoners is the same halfway house use that Pivot had on the property, a non-conforming pre-existing use. The city and opponents of the plan say it is not.

The accusation of deception made against Firetree stems partially from the fact that Pivot made the original application for work on the property. The Zoning permit issued in June 2015 was to Firetree/Pivot.

Commissioner Keith Lyon asked Cody if Firetree and Pivot have a legal relationship. The answer was no.

“I am asking if it would be common practice to make the application in the name of two unrelated bodies, Firetree and Pivot,” Lyon said.

“We were not involved. Our law firm was not involved,” Cody said, drawing hearty laughter from the audience, and a comment, “Got busted.”

“My guess as to what was going on was they were noting property owner/applicant,” Cody said.

Firetree sent letters to Rilling, Hempstead and Kulhawik in September 2014, Cody said.

“The letter was very explicit about who Firetree was and what they intended to do at 17 Quintard Ave.,” he said.

The three were notified that Firetree had “submitted an offer to provide residential reentry center services or halfway house services for federal offenders releasing to Fairfield County, Conn.,” he said, describing this as a mandatory part of Firetree’s application to the Bureau of Prisons.

There was no reply, he said.

Commissioner Joseph Beggan asked if the three leaders had written back with objections would that have stopped the application.

Firetree Vice President Amy Ertel said Firetree would have asked about the objections.

“If they gave us good grounds, we would have looked for another property,” she said.

“It is our contention that Firetree’s identity was well-known amongst the staff,” Cody said later.

The code on the building permit application identified the use as a transitional living facilities/halfway houses with more than 16 people, he said, referring to code I-1, which states:

“This occupancy shall include buildings, structures or portions thereof housing more than 16 persons, on a 24-hour basis, who because of age, mental disability or other reasons, live in a supervised residential environment that provides personal care services. The occupants are capable of responding to an emergency situation without physical assistance from staff. This group shall include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • “Residential board and care facilities; Assisted living facilities; ·
  • “Halfway houses;
  • “Group homes;
  • “Congregate care facilities; Social rehabilitation facilities; Alcohol and drug centers; Convalescent facilities.”

Zoning regulations limit halfway houses to seven to 12 residents.

“The building plans themselves, the floorplans, clearly demonstrated that this was not an outpatient clinic, this was not a detox facility. So, this was not a detox center in the sense that Bridgeport had a drug treatment center. This was for a halfway house, the same use that Pivot had,” Cody said. “…You cannot look at those plans and approve them and not know that it’s a halfway house.”

“Chill for a second,” Conroy said, pausing Cody and drawing laughter.

“I am not convinced that that’s the case because you’re going to do fire alarms, you’re going to do wheelchair lifts…. You can do these things and not have it in your mind that you’re going to do halfway house, but instead that you’re going to have multiple floors,” Conroy said.

Cody went on to recount emails Rilling sent to Zoning asking for updates “very late in game,” after being alerted by neighbors, after Firetree had spent $600,000 on renovating the house.

“I am enormously sympathetic to your point of view that your client has spent $600,000, but the board does not have the right to bring value judgement on whether life has been unfair,” Lyon said.

Many audience members at Thursday’s Zoning Board of Appeals public hearing wore “Vote no” stickers.

Cody asked if he was going to be cross examined or allowed to make a presentation, and Lyon withdrew the inquiry.

By mid-August 2015, minds had been made up, Cody said. Firetree was not going to get its certificate of occupancy, and architect Mark Demmerle was very surprised, he said, quoting Demmerle as saying, “In more than four decades of experience I do not recall any instance in which the zoning officer certified a permit, then refused certificate of occupancy based on approved use which the Zoning officer had already considered and approved.”

Pivot House had up to 20 residents at a time, Pivot Executive Director Anthony Kiniry said, describing people sleeping on sofas on occasion.

“A lot of the guys were incarcerated,” he said. “It would be hard to find a guy who hadn’t had some type of interaction with the legal system.”

More than 90 percent of Firetree’s clients have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, she said.

“The halfway house is critical to these people to have a supportive environment to be successful in the community,” she said.

Conroy asked her if any part of Firetree is for-profit.

“Not Firetree,” she said, drawing snarky laughter, she said.

Firetree is seen by some as having several associated for-profit companies, which funnel money to the Ertel family.

“We, in good faith, felt every step of the way that we were meeting what was needed by the city of Norwalk,” Ertel said. “We have now invested over $2 million into this facility. Currently, I can’t even get into the facility to remove computers to move them into a facility that we are building in Indiana, Penn., because we are not allowed to step onto our property.”

Firetree has lost $500,000 in revenue because Norwalk would not allow it to open its facility, she said. Legal fees over the last nine months add up to $150,000-200,000, she said.

Residents to the halfway house can come from any federal institution but must have a connection to the community, she said, responding to questions from Beggan.

The Bureau of Prisons’ Request for Proposals was for Fairfield County and, “Norwalk was a named town so that means they have a preponderance of residents that would come to this town,” she said.

The prisoners would be released to Fairfield County anyway, but without the halfway house they have no support, she said.

Cody went on to say that there is some confusion: the issue is the use of the land, not the user.

“I see the relevance in what they were and what they are,” Conroy said.

“Firetree is requesting approval of either the appeal or the special exception as a reasonable accommodation under the federal Fair Housing Act amendments and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Cody said, going on to issue the threat of compensatory and punitive damages.

“The accommodation issue is something that we have to inquire of our counsel,” Conroy said.

“Staff was not aware that prisoners would be involved in this until complaints from the neighbors,” Rochefort said.

“Their name was somewhere on application form but at that point it could have been a contractor. I was not familiar with that name, Firetree. It had not come up in any other correspondence,” she said.

As for the code on the building permit application, which specified that it was a halfway house for more than 16 people, Rochefort’s testimony developed a pattern: that was a building permit, not a Zoning permit.

“When a Zoning approval leaves our office, it gets taken down to the building department, we don’t see it again until the final CO, at which time we go out and do our inspections,” she said.

Mayor Harry Rilling and his wife, Lucia Rilling, stand in the back of the Common Council chambers Thursday as the Zoning Board of Appeals holds a public hearing on Firetree’s application to open a halfway house on Quintard Ave. The pair arrived about an hour into the hearing, and stayed for a while.

The letters to Rilling, Kulhawik and Hempstead?

“Nothing was presented to the Zoning office,” Rochefort said. “We had no communication with any of those three people nor do they issue zoning permits. They wouldn’t know if a use was permitted or not permitted.”

Cody began asking her questions, in cross examination style.

“Do you agree when the building permit came in, the property was owned by Firetree?” he asked.

“I have no way of knowing that,” Rochefort said. “I don’t go to the building department. When they leave the Zoning office, they leave with Zoning approval and a stamped set of plans. They have one year to get a building permit.”

After nearly 2.5 hours, the public got a chance to weigh in. Conroy asked if anyone wanted to speak in favor of the application; no one did.

Just because Firetree is a federally recognized non-profit agency, it doesn’t mean that someone isn’t raking in the cash, Rudolph Weiss said.

CEOs make millions, and there’s a “big difference between a ministry and a corporation that operates as 501c3 but has private owners at the helm,” he said.

“It seems to me that Firetree and its lawyers tried to come in and sneak through this application,” Weiss said. “It would be easier to ask forgiveness than ask for permission. Just because they spent millions of dollars doing this, they should not be rewarded for their deception.”

Klaus Schmitt, an architect, said the Zoning regulations are clear about the continuation of a pre-existing use.

Firetree changed the garage into a different structure and enclosed the porch, with tiny windows, giving the place an institutional look out of character with the neighborhood, he said.

“To approve the appeal or even approve the request for a new special permit is a flagrant disregard of Zoning regulations as they are written,” Schmitt said. “For the attorney to threaten us with punitive damages as well as pulling the ADA card, that this is somehow discriminatory against people with disabilities, is absurd.”

Pivot was run by former addicts, not professionals, Bob Weiner said, going on to add that the operation was Christ-centered, and people weren’t coming from incarceration but as an alternative to incarceration.

If you look at Firetree’s appeal, it doesn’t mention housing prisoners, felons or parolees, but just talks about disabled people, he said.

“They are trying to cover up the fundamental nature of their use,” he said.

“This whole idea that a philanthropic applicant gets to use property any way they want to is ridiculous,” said Urban Mulvehill, a former ZBA chairman, adding that Pivot rescued people from the prison system, but Firetree would bring hardened criminals to the neighborhood.

“It is almost laughable to say that a halfway house from prison is the same as drug rehab facility,” Mulvehill said. “… They really didn’t want to alert anybody what they were doing so they tried to sneak it through.”

10 comments

Donna May 5, 2017 at 9:33 am

After last night’s theatre of the absurd performance by Tom Cody, Amy Ertel and Company, one can easily conclude that Firetree/Orange Stones/Treefire are as comfortable playing ignoramuses as they are school yard bullies. Whoever scoped out the location for this shoot did not do his or her due diligence. I am very familiar with Family Re-entry in Bridgeport, whom Tony Kiniry, Pivot House and Lighthouse CEO said led Pivot House into negotiations with Firetree. FRE would have known better than to attempt to place individuals re-entering society from the criminal justice system into this neighborhood. And FRE would have known better than to imagine an unanswered letter to Rilling and the police chief would suffice to prove their intended use (housing federal prisoners) was known and that the Zoning Department would issue a CO. Because we all know that Zoning Departments work in lockstep with the mayor rather than looking to the regulations that govern their work.

Between the embarrassment of the multiple three ring binder handout–an unintentional parody of the Post Office “letters to Santa” scene from “Miracle on 34th Street”—and the public comments from neighbors whose opinions were never solicited by Firetree–I’m scratching my head wondering why Firetree isn’t walking away with its tail between its legs.

They may have deep pockets, and are clearly of a mind to litigate to recover their investment. But bad PR and additional scrutiny from the FBP may send this motley crew packing. It doesn’t look good that a family run company, whose VP Amy Ertel earns upwards of 100k from Firetree alone, is trying to extort 2 million from the City of Norwalk because they had the poor judgement to purchase property on a residential street with family homes.

The comparative example of Harrisburg Capitol Pavillion was especially misleading. Look up the 2000 block of North 4th Street in Harrisburg, and you will find dilapidated homes in forclosure, sold at auction for 30 or 40 thousand dollars. Even the new town homes mentioned sell for little more than 100k. The Harrisburg location is in a neighborhood where Ms. Ertel, Mr. Cody and Mr. Kiniry would never put down roots to raise their own children. The schools get a D- grade. By contrast, Firetree paid over 400k for the house on Quintard.

Firetree is playing the “If You Build It, They will Come” game. A surreptitious purchase, and a deceptive process, coupled with applications for structural improvements that made no mention of a substantially changed use from the previous occupant. A halfway house is a halfway house until it’s a prison. And Firetree is trying to open a prison on Quintard. They should put up a 12′ fence with concerntina wire to complete the institutional curb appeal.

East Norwalk May 5, 2017 at 10:22 am

Remember folks. If you allow just ONE of these homes in our neighborhood, many more will follow. Fight tooth and nail to prevent it! It only takes one to open Pandora’s Box!

Sono Spirit May 5, 2017 at 1:39 pm

The local community came out in force last night at the hearing and filled the meeting room audience. Every local resident who attended was against Firetree’s proposed use and many more have expressed this but could not attend. People left pretty energized especially after next door neighbor Ms. Salkie’s tearful plea about the impact this is already having on her children.

Firetree has no significant community support for pursuing such an operation on Quintard Avenue, yet this is a key requirement that the Bureau of Prisons places on its contractors. There were also extensive arguments concerning how Firetree’s operation would violate existing zoning law, how it would be a completely different use than that of Pivot Ministries and how their “existing non-conforming use” argument fails as well.

Firetree is now literally throwing out any argument they can to see if anything will stick. Their statement that they would be serving an audience of “disabled people” rather than the prisoners and parolees spelled out in Bureau of Prison documents associated with their contracts for this facility were also debunked.

Donna May 5, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Firetree was awarded a 5.6 million dollar government contract to operate a Residential Reentry Center at 17 Quintard. The original Bureau of Prisons Request for Proposals indicated a preference for a Bridgeport location, or New Haven. I cannot confirm Amy Ertel’s statement that the RFP was for a RRC in Norwalk because most of the prisoners incarcerated at the RRC would return to homes in Norwalk.

BOP language on RRCs is not specific as to rehabilitation services or providing care for a disabled population. The ADA claims made by Attorney Cody last night appear to have been mostly to advance the threat of litigation.

Donna May 6, 2017 at 1:42 pm

In July of 2009, Firetree, Ltd, as part of their obligation to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, sent the letter below to Marshalltown Iowa Mayor Gene Beach.

https://ci.marshalltown.ia.us/media/getMedia/MediaID/1431

By August 19th, the Marshall County Board of Supervisors had issued the following resolution, items 2 through 4 of that meeting’s agenda being limited to manure management.

http://www.co.marshall.ia.us/departments/bos/minutes/2009/2009-08-18_0841.pdf

Mayor Beach may have been more pro-active than our local officials. However, notification of the mayor and chief of police is not a substitute for community buy-in. Also most of Firetree’s facilities are in industrial areas, and not in residential neighborhoods comprised of single and multi-family homes. There is no industry and very limited commerical activity (I believe there is a palm reader and a day care) on Quintard. There is something comical about granting federal prisoners proximity to world class waterfront real estate, although this features certainly makes marine escapes easier.

The mayor, the chief of police and the CC president at the time SHOULD have alerted neighbors to the proposal. However, their negligence does not oblige the ZBA or the CIty to bear responsibility for Firetree’s losses. Firetree is asking for a fundamental and unreasonable change in existing zoning regulations. A prisoner reentry facility is called a “halfway house” by the BOP as a euphemism. But the activity of a BOP RRC is substantially different than the activities of a traditional halfway house for alcoholics as described in the zoning regulations.

Attorney Cody argued that we should limit our objections to the use and not the user. But in the case of Firetree, the use is defined by the user. Firetree’s is a Federal Bureau of Prisons Residential Reentry Center contractor. The code prohibits use of halfway houses under management of the department of corrections. What exactly IS the Bureau of Prisons if not a federal department of corrections?

McKeen Shanogg May 6, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Who’s to say if Norwalk bows to Firetree’s threat of litigation and allows them in, they won’t continue finding things to sue about or threatening to sue ad infinitum? Every time Firetree or its inmates would violate a city ordinance, they might threaten to sue unless given a waiver. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.

Fritz May 7, 2017 at 5:38 pm

This area of Sono has enough issues so allowing this kind of facility would just add more stress to a beautiful neighborhood that is trying to re-build.

The city should purchase the property, demolish the building and build a neighborhood garden that will be supported by the entire community.

The would be gated and well lit, and open only from sunrise to sunset.

It will be a memorial to the intent and outreach of the original Pivot House and the neighborhood and City that supported it.

Donna May 7, 2017 at 10:08 pm

The property should be purchased by the city from Firetree and sold as a single family or two family home.. The City cannot afford to buy and tear down the house for open space, as nice as that would be for the neighborhood.

Setting a precedent on Quintard in firm opposition to management of halfway houses in residential neighborhoods by the Federal Bureau of Prisons is an important step for the city. Refining the language in the code may be in order.

john Flynn May 9, 2017 at 4:18 pm

We have enough criminals. We don’t need to ship them here by the busload. Firetree placed the Chief and others on the board to financially compensate them, give them titles, and those individuals should be charged with conspiracy to commit fraud. We don’t need a new Fire department, Police department, and 100 new school buses. These people are ethically and morally bankrupt and have bankrupted the city.

Lower my taxes because we get no police protection. Firetree was deceptive. Notifying the Mayor and Police Chief does not create any obligation to protect the citizens of Quintard. Police have no duty to protect anyone. Police do not uphold the constitution or any State Statutes.

When you ask for a Police report in Norwalk they deny them and give you an excuse that providing a Police report “would jeopardize their ongoing investigation”.

When you sue the Police, they deny any knowledge of anything. You need to have a camera rolling to catch them kicking you in the head.

Let Firetree sue Norwalk. Norwalk will have the evidence disappear and after the plaintiff rests, Norwalk will claim Firetree did not prove its case and the judge will issue a summary judgment in favor of the Defendant Norwalk.

I have seen it happen all to often.

A faith based rehab center for first time offenders is not a federal prison lock-down facility.

There are ten beds on the top floor now Firetree is saying 16 prisoners because they got caught. There are 30 air conditioning lines from the compressor pad in the back. Airconditioning for 30, in a zone with a maximum of 12 people.

4 houses on this street backed up raw sewage last year. 17 more people showering will cause an over loaded sewage problem. The street cannot support one more car.

When the gang-bangers families come to visit the gang-bangers at Firetree; they will not be allowed to park in front of 27 Quintard.

27 Quintard.

Donna May 10, 2017 at 3:12 pm

On January 23, 2017, masked gunmen stormed the Bannum Place halfway house in Saginaw, Michigan and executed 31 year old Demarion Thomas. While Thomas was sought out and executed by one gunman, the other gunman held inmates and employees at gunpoint. Michigan State Police Lt. David Kaiser said of the incident, “you can clearly see in the video thy just went in and opened the door.” It was not a forced entry. Fortunately, Bannum Place, a Residential Reentry Center in the manner of the one proposed by Firetree, Ltd. for Quintard, is NOT located in a residential neighborhood.

Neighbors and concerned citizens are encouraged to call their congressmen (Blumenthal, Murphy and Himes). Blumenthal’ office has already received many calls. The more calls the better. The more press coverage the better.

Concerned citizens should also contact Patrick McFarland at the Brooklyn Reseidential Reentry Management Field Office. He is away this week, but can be reached next week at (718) 840-4219. Mail McFarland at P.O. Box 329014, Brooklyn, NY, 11232.

The Request For Proposals that resulted in Firetree’s awarding of this contract was generated by the Brooklyn RRM. I have read the RFP and though I did see Bridgeport and New Haven mentioned as potential locations of interest to the Federal BOP, nowhere have I seen the city of Norwalk mentioned.

Firetree’s intended use of 17 Quintard does not fall under the previous use, which was as a faith-based, male only sober living environment. When the BOP refers to halfway houses, what they mean is Residential Reentry Center. These are not treatment centers for substance abuse. These are not support homes for the handicapped. They are low security prisons. And they don’t belong on a stree where children play outside, where homeowners have invested their life savings, and where the NPD has a mediocre track record of surveillance and enforcement. NPD may be overburdened and underbudgeted. All the more reason not to allow Firetree to house federal prisoners on Quintard.

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