NORWALK, Conn. — Expect less than .5 additional crimes a year in Norwalk if a federal prisoner’s halfway house opens on Quintard Avenue.
So implied Attorney Thomas Cody last week in attempting to convince the Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals to lift the roadblock faced by the embattled Pennsylvania nonprofit seeking to bring convicts to SoNo.
While the alleged lack of crime was volunteered freely, other information came only with repeated questioning from ZBA Commissioners at ZBA’s public hearing, where there were hints of a coming legal battle and passionate arguments from neighbors opposed to the transformation of the former Pivot House.
“I have lived in Shorefront Park for 40 years, more than 40 years,” Pat Audet said. “I remember a time when kids couldn’t play on the street …I feel that putting a halfway house on Quintard Avenue, you are taking us backwards.”
Firetree, a Pennsylvania non-profit known as being litigious, had both a court stenographer and a videographer on hand for the hearing. Attorneys handed the appeals board multiple documents during the proceedings, including one that was reportedly 25 pages long, and had emailed at 27 page document that afternoon, according to ZBA Chairman Andy Conroy.
“A lot of this stuff is coming at the last second,” Conroy said. “… I think there is a 10 day-before hearing requirement.”
Firetree alleges that Norwalk would be violating the Fair Housing Act if it didn’t allow the prisoner halfway house to open, after the company spent $600,000 to upgrade 17 Quintard Ave.
“It was my impression early on, when we began to discuss this with the Mayor and Council people, that they were very intimidated by the prospect of being sued by Firetree,” Dr. Joann Smith said, as part of the public testimony.
Smith had a retort for comments made by Firetree Vice President Amy Ertel at the first part of the ZBA public hearing, in May.
“I can’t even get into the facility to remove computers,” Ertel had said.
“Ms. Ertel, I am very sorry you can’t get your chairs and computers but they were moved in without a Certificate of Occupancy,” Smith said. “There was no right of anybody to bring them in there. But anyway, this is typical of Firetree’s behavior in the past.”
“Orange Stones seems to me like a kidney stone: Its mere presence causes pain,” author Don Spatz wrote, as quoted by Smith.
Firetree has lost four lawsuits, Smith said, offering “reassurance” that Norwalk can refuse to allow Firetree to open its halfway house.
At the end of the 5-hour hearing, ZBA ruled against Firetree’s appeal of the Zoning Department’s denial of a CO for the property. But still to come is a June 28 hearing on Firetree’s request for a special exception to the Zoning regulations.
Cody alleges that Norwalk is discriminating against disabled people by refusing to let the halfway house open, and some of last week’s arguments attacked Cody’s invocation of the Fair Housing Act.
“Imprisonment is not a disabling condition,” Dr. Jeffery Dietz, a psychiatrist, said.
“Substance abuse and mental health disorders are not in and of themselves disabling,” he said, asserting that each case is different. “The argument does not hold water.”
The voluminous materials offered during the hearing included a legal analysis of the Fair Housing Act. Cody claimed that Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann had based his analysis on an earlier version of the federal law, quoting McCann as saying a “vast majority of future inhabitants” need to be disabled for the law to apply.
“We disagree. … A ‘mere majority’ need to be demonstrated to be disabled,” Cody said.
Firetree claims that it needs 17 beds in its halfway house for it to be financially viable.
“You can’t use (that)as a basis of your argument,” ZBA member Lee Levey said, inspiring applause from the audience, asserting that statutes prohibit ZBA from granting a variance or an appeal based on the financial viability of the use.
“Under the federal Fair Housing Act, financial feasibility of this use is a viable criteria to evaluate whether we have made a reasonable accommodation or request,” Cody replied.
Residents expressed confusion about how many beds Firetree has been planning; Cody explained that the Bureau of Prisons’ RFP had requested 20 beds but Firetree had put in a bid for 19. The company then dropped it to 17 because that was what Pivot had under its grandfathered in-Zoning approval, he said.
The facility would never be full and would likely average 14.5 occupants, he said.
East Norwalker Diane Cece had earlier challenged the reported number of beds Firetree would provide, detailing research that put it at 20.
Cece said she had contacted the Bureau of Prisons to request a copy of Firetree’s contract, and was on the verge of filing a Freedom of Information Act complaint because she hadn’t gotten it. But in the course of a phone conversation she had learned that Firetree must be prepared to service 20 beds, 18 men and two women, as part of its contract, she said.
Levey also pressed Cody about parking for the halfway house, asking how many spaces there are per inmate at Firetree’s facility in Syracuse, N.Y.
“I don’t know offhand,” Cody replied, explaining that Syracuse Pavilion residents get less than half a visitor a day.
There are five parking spaces at the Quintard Avenue site, Cody said, drawing laughter from the audience and cries of, “What? Where?” and “Get some glasses.”
Firetree’s staff has committed to park off the street and, “If there isn’t a spot in the driveway available they will walk to facility,” Cody said.
“You still have not answered my question,” Levey said, asking, “How many parking spaces for staff are at Syracuse versus what is proposed on Quintard?”
“Just make something up,” someone in the audience said. as Cody stood silent.
“This is a very simple question,” Levey said. “This would have been required for any zoning application.”
“I don’t know the answer,” Cody said.
“Then just say I don’t know. That’s all,” Levey replied.
Ertel, under questioning from ZBA member Greg Brasher, said that residents do get visitors but the goal is for them to visit nearby family at their homes.
“It’s not clear to me whether Firetree took a gamble that they would get the approvals itneeds … or was relying on some process that they would get the approval,” Conroy said.
Firetree already had a Norwalk Zoning permit when it bought 17 Quintard in July 2015, Cody said.
“I know the city staff disagrees about the meaning of that but they certainly issued a Zoning permit,” Cody said.
“We did have a Zoning permit, our plans for construction were submitted and demonstrated that we were the class, institutional,” Ertel said.
She was asked how Firetree contacted the community.
“Do you reach out to neighborhood associations? Community groups?” Levey asked.
“We do that once we have been awarded a contract. In this case, we set up a community advisory board,” Ertel said.
The Board included Common Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Council member Eloisa Melendez (D-District A)
“We were upfront with them,” Ertel said, describing a walking tour through the nearly complete facility.
Levey asked if the Board had organized a community meeting.
“We did not get to that point. We were planning on doing that in the fall and having an open house once we had an occupancy permit,” Ertel said.
“So, you thought of doing something but you thought you would do it after the fact,” Levey said.
“We believed we had the right to be there, yes,” Ertel said.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Levey said, asking if community outreach was an “afterthought.”
“We did not see it as an afterthought,” Ertel said. “It was our logical way of doing it. We wanted out staff in place so that they could meet with our staff, versus meeting with people from Pennsylvania.”
Bowman and Melendez “knew exactly what we were doing,” Ertel said, answering questions from ZBA member Joe Beggan.
Bowman and Melendez declined to comment for this article.
The Board was disbanded, Ertel said, drawing a rebuttal from an audience member: “They all resigned.”
“People get selected for this program while they are incarcerated, while they are in a federal penitentiary?” Beggan asked.
“Yes,” Ertel said, explaining that some residents are on parole. Some are “pre-release.”
Firetree negotiates with BoP on possible residents, sometimes refusing an application, she said.
“The evidence is that everywhere Firetree has been… the residents that they have do not have problems with the police, they are not in the community committing crimes,” Cody said. “That is crystal clear from the testimony.”
There is almost no police presence at Firetree facilities due to the residents, he said, producing an affidavit from Syracuse Pavilion Director Chris Corcoran claiming that 71 percent of the residents there have disabilities.
“This is consistent with their long-term trends and the trends within the prison population as a whole,” Cody said.
In Corcoran’s 12 years in Syracuse, there were two times police came to the facility and three incidents that required police action in the community, Cody said, calling that “less than half an incident a year.”
“He expects that we would experience the same pattern here in Norwalk,” Cody said.
“Thank you very much,” an audience member said.
Firetree employees do not carry guns and are not security guards, Cody and Ertel said.
“When we in good faith did this, we believe that transitional housing, such as a halfway house, is the same regardless of whether it is drug and alcohol treatment, faith based or a reentry program because we are doing social rehabilitation,” Ertel said. “We are providing life skills, with getting jobs, or reacclimating into a productive lifestyle.”
“In federal custody,” an audience member said.
The confrontational atmosphere continued in a break in the hearing, a recess requested by Cody.
Firetree’s videographer continued to film the proceedings during the break, but shifted his camera away from the audience, pointing the lens at ZBA members as they engaged in an animated conversation. Audience members accused him of trying to get video for lip reading purposes.
Simultaneously, Firetree’s court reporter told Quintard resident Rick Reardon to “Sit down and shut up.” The reporter had asked someone for their name, and Reardon had told that person not to give it.
Quintard residents are scared, East Norwalker Ted Zakhar said, as a public speaker earlier in the meeting.
“It only takes one of these criminals to leave that facility. I am all for rehabilitation but it just takes one guy to go off the beaten path,” Zakhar said.
Firetree “can be so litigious that finally everything collapses and they will get in there,” Curt Watrouse said. “There is a lot of money to be made and I think the big question is … Why would anyone accused of a crime be found innocent or offered clemency when there is so much money to be made by finding them guilty and locking them up? So, they are trying to make space in the prison system so that more people can come in.”
“The jailhouse goes in, the property values will go down,” Watrouse said. “We need to maintain the residential nature, the Water Street-Quintard-Woodward corridor. At least we have a neighborhood all the way down. If you cut it up with this jailhouse it’s going to be the end of everything.”