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Litigious Firetree promises Norwalk prisoners’ halfway house would be safe

Attorney Thomas Cody speaks his mind at Wednesday’s Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals public hearing in City Hall.

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.”

A member of Firetree’s legal team hands the Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals documents, Wednesday in City Hall.

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.”

As part of her proof, Smith had a copy of a column from the Reading Eagle, alleging Firetree deception through a related company, Orange Stones.

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.”

A Google satellite image of 17 Quintard Ave.

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.”

12 comments

Wineshine June 12, 2017 at 9:21 am

Sorry, but this is theater of the absurb. Recall the rustlers, robbers, murdereres and other assorted scoundrels riding in and trying to take over Rock Ridge. What’s the difference? Well, at least in Blazing Saddles, the local authorities did something to prevent the town’s takeover.

Donna June 12, 2017 at 9:41 am

I’m glad Attorney Cody thinks the Quintard neighborhood will be safe once the Firetree Federal Prisoner Reentry Center opens. But there’s a frightening track record of violence and drug abuse associated with Federal BOP Residential Reentry Centers.

Consider Bannum House in Saginaw, MI, where in January of this year, masked gunmen entered, held staff and residents at gunpoint, and executed an inmate.

Consider this: https://www.theet.com/news/free/defendant-drugs-were-amply-available-at-federal-halfway-house-in/article_52e073e3-be71-5725-94da-24acee57cd2e.html

And this: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/halfway-to-nowhere-0000582-v22n2

Cody’s safety assurances defy the news coming out of RRCs this year, and what Erik Borsuk experienced during his stay–ample drugs, easily obtainable, and difficult to detect through drug testing.

These are just three examples, but a quick Google search yields dozens of recent cases involving sexual assault of inmates by RRC employees, and sexual assault of RRC neighbors by RRC inmates. The availability and use of drugs appears to be rampant in RRCs. And the suggestion that drugs are widely available and widely used in RRCs completely debunks Firetree’s claim for accommodations under the Fair Housing Act. The FHA only protects recovering addicts while they are clean and sober. Also Firetree, LTD cannot possibly guarantee that a majority of their residents will be covered as disabled under FHA guidelines. They will have a revolving door of inmates. This legal argument does not hold water, and the City Attorney needs to make sure the ZBA knows this.

Firetree claims they only want to help persons reenter society. Based on their performance here and elsewhere, I’d like to correct the record. They seem to prefer intimidation and litigation to any kind of community outreach. Brining in a court reporter and videographer and attempting to collect names from members of the public who submitted comments–i.e. your would-be neighbors–is NOT how you get into the neighborhood. My guess is they know they can’t get in at this point, and the rest of this is about building a court case.

Donna June 12, 2017 at 10:42 am

If Firetree did not spend more than 25% of the replacement cost of the structure on improvements to 17 Quintard (approximately 75k), then where did that $600,000 go? Into plantings?

Sono Spirit June 12, 2017 at 10:46 am

Firetree’s lawyers are doing what they are paid to do, ram Firetree’s desired new use of 17 Quintard as a federal prison re-entry center past the city and its residents, ignoring the harm it will do to the local community with whom they have long refused to discuss the facility. As Firetree realized that they could not get the city to ignore how their proposed use violated local zoning laws, they simply stopped arguing that point and started adding different arguments to see if anything might stick. When asked a simple direct question by the Zoning Board of Appeals, such as “Did you engage with the local community?”, the response was so meandering and non-responsive as to be worthy of an Alzheimer’s patient. Clearly, they simply did not want to deal with a vital issue actually demanded in the code of behavior by its contract sponsor, the Bureau of Prisons.

Firetree’s claims of improving neighborhoods, like many of their claims, have no basis in fact, so they seldom offer any facts. One fact about their facilities in Pennsylvania as documented by a penal system study showed a higher recidivism rate for prisoners assigned to Firetree facilities than for the same type of prisoner released directly back into society. Up is down, apparently in Firetree’s world.

In a separate review in Hazleton, PA of a halfway house according to law enforcement records, offenders from the halfway house have been involved in murders, bank robberies and numerous other crimes. Drug sales, theft rings, prostitution and gangs as types of activities resulted from the halfway house’s presence.

No doubt Firetree’s well-paid legal staff, likely paid with taxpayer funds since that is the major source of Firetree’s revenue stream, could explain how such potential crime would be of great benefit to the community, reducing the need to go outside (fewer cases of skin cancer), requiring more police officers (who protect and serve), and stimulating gun sales (building the economy).

An examination of local zoning law regarding Special Exceptions shows that Firetree’s proposed use fails each and every requirement for a Special Exception. This together with the entire community coming out against this misplaced use at 17 Quintard means there is no reason for the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant Firetree a Special Exception at its meeting later this month.

anna russo June 12, 2017 at 10:56 am

Bottom line.. Norwalk is royally screwed (AGAIN)… why? because the cc and Rilling (the “mayor”) are complete fricken idiots who don’t own ounce of intelligence between them!!!

Sono Spirit June 12, 2017 at 11:39 am

Firetree’s lawyers are doing what they are paid to do, ram Firetree’s desired new use of 17 Quintard as a federal prison re-entry center past the city and its residents, ignoring the harm it will do to the local community with whom they have long refused to discuss the facility. As Firetree realized that they could not get the city to ignore how their proposed use violated local zoning laws, they simply stopped arguing that point and started adding different arguments to see if anything might stick. When asked a simple direct question by the Zoning Board of Appeals, such as “Did you engage with the local community?”, the response was so meandering and non-responsive as to be worthy of an Alzheimer’s patient. Clearly, they simply did not want to deal with a vital issue actually demanded in the code of behavior by its contract sponsor, the Bureau of Prisons.

Firetree’s claims of improving neighborhoods, like many of their claims, have no basis in fact, so they seldom offer any facts. One fact about their facilities in Pennsylvania as documented by a penal system study showed a higher recidivism rate for prisoners assigned to Firetree facilities than for the same type of prisoner released directly back into society. Up is down, apparently in Firetree’s world.

In a separate review in Hazleton, PA of a halfway house according to law enforcement records, offenders from the halfway house have been involved in murders, bank robberies and numerous other crimes. Drug sales, theft rings, prostitution and gangs as types of activities resulted from the halfway house’s presence.

No doubt Firetree’s well-paid legal staff, likely paid with taxpayer funds since that is the major source of Firetree’s revenue stream, could explain how such potential crime would be of great benefit to the community, reducing the need to go outside (fewer cases of skin cancer), requiring more police officers (who protect and serve), and stimulating gun sales (building the economy).

An examination of local zoning law regarding Special Exceptions shows that Firetree’s proposed use fails each and every requirement for a Special Exception. This together with the entire community coming out against this misplaced use at 17 Quintard means there is no reason for the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant Firetree a Special Exception at its meeting later this month.

Donna June 12, 2017 at 4:38 pm

Check out this article from Vice, entitled “Inside the Absurd Limbo of a Post Prison Halfway House”.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/halfway-to-nowhere-0000582-v22n2

The author claims that, during his stay in an RRC, drugs were easy to get and hard to test for. So much for Firetree’s claim for reasonable accommodations under FHA. If you use drugs, you lose your disability status. And there is a sobriety period before you qualify as disabled.

@Sono Spirit, not only can we not control what kinds of criminals will live at 17 Quintard, we can’t control what they do once they get there, and neither can the RRC operators in many cases. Crimes committed by RRC occupants include idrug abuse and drug sales and manufacture, theft, rape, and murder.

In Saginaw, the RRC supervisors and inmates were overpowered by masked gunmen, who found their target and executed him while two dozen witnesses watched.

Victor Cavallo June 13, 2017 at 4:06 am

This is Al Mandany all over again. No more capitulation: Mr Mayor, Mr. Corporation Counsel and Common Counsel Members. Stand up and resist the litigation coercion. And cry out loud for zoning reform.

Donna June 13, 2017 at 9:23 am

@Victor Cavallo, you raise an excellent point. Aside from Mayor Rilling stopping by the first ZBA meeting to shake his head (probably over things he knew about before the rest of us), our elected officials have been alarmingly absent from these discussions. The Mayor needs to issue a public statement. It’s okay to say, “look folks, I was busy when I got that letter from Firetree in 2014, and zoning isn’t my bailiwick. I goofed. But now I want to right this sinking ship And by the way, the Police Chief and CC president had their heads in the sand too.” The people of Norwalk need the Mayor to show some grit here. Instead he seems to be hiding until the dust settles. Wrong move in an election year, your honor.

In spite of these oversights, however, the applicant, Firetree, LTD., still can’t trace a line that proves they were given approval for the same use or for a new use. Sending a letter to the Mayor does not satisfy the requirements of the zoning regulations that grandfathered nonconforming uses must not change or enlarge. In fact, the goal of zoning with regard to nonconforming uses is to REDUCE or ELIMINATE the nonconformity. If any of us wanted to make a change to our home, and wrote the Mayor a letter that he did not respond to, would we assume that no response meant we had zoning approval? Never in a million years. But Firetree operates in some alternate dimension where the rules we all abide by don’t apply to them.

The Office of the Inspector General for the Justice Department has conducted extensive research into RRCs. Firetree is claiming a right to accommodations under the Fair Housing Act. In a 2012 audit, the OIG found that 30% of inmates in RRCs in their research sample were not drug tested according to the schedule set out in the Statement of Work (SOW). One RRC in this research sample “did not administer breathalyzer tests to all inmates returning to the facility from unsupervised activities.” There is a pattern of failure to administer drug tests and breathalyzer tests in RRCs. In other words, the claim of entitlement to FHA accommodations is only as good as your ability to prove a majority of your occupants are actually disabled at any given time as a result of addiction. And if the RRC isn’t testing according to the SOW, which sets the bar pretty low, how can Firetree possibly hold up their disability figures? An alcoholic who claims his addiction is disabling must remain sober in order to be entitled to accommodations under the ADA and the FHA.

Rick June 13, 2017 at 3:14 pm

I mentioned names of those who are useless have done nothing a few days ago within 24 hours the phone calls and emails starting coming in defending their actions over the last couple of months.( nice try Bob)

Now Firetree is detailing who in the city knew what,we still harbor names of players who were not truthful with the residents of Quintrad ave no surprise most of them are Democrats.

Round two will be just as eventful keeping it out of the political arena is going to be hard I know I won’t be able to do that.

Most cities and towns that were attacked by FIRETREE created new zoning laws whats Norwalk waiting for another election?

This makes no sense wait for it to happen again before change is implemneted and the city will be here again sooner than later.

When your plotting and having so many back room meetings it must be hard to keep track of the deals made, so when one translates to the public later who is getting screwed its overwhelming.

It was once said private meetings at homes in the city happen all the time out of city hall view ,I’m starting to understand why that has been said in SOUTH NORWALK many times by those never invited.

Donna June 14, 2017 at 11:37 pm

It’s not only an uptick in crime Quintard neighbors should worry about. It’s also the threat of litigation from Firetree as a consequence of speaking out against their application. Can anyone explain why the federal government would give tax payer money to these school yard bullies?

How can Amy Ertel claim they only want to help people while paying a private stenographer to collect names from –and intimidate–neighbors who oppose them?

These are venal people. Hope the door doesn’t hit them on their way out.

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Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.