Norwalk ZBA refuses Firetree’s appeal

From left, Norwalk Zoning Board of Appeals members Gregory Brasher, Joe Beggan, Andy Conroy and Taylor Strubinger on Wednesday debate an appeal filed by Firetree LTD.

Updated, 2:38 p.m.: Public hearing is June 28. Updated 2:18 p.m.: Firetree letter also went to Doug Hempstead.

NORWALK, Conn. – Round one went Wednesday to SoNo residents fighting to prevent a federal prisoner halfway house from opening in their neighborhood.

The Zoning Board of Appeals voted, just before midnight, 4 to 1 against an appeal filed by Firetree LTD of Zoning Inspector Aline Rochefort’s refusal to grant a Certificate of Occupancy for its expensive renovation of the former Pivot House on Quintard Avenue. The decision came with some criticisms of Norwalk’s government.

Round two will be consideration of Firetree’s request for a special exception to allow it to open its transitional living facility for the Bureau of Prisoners. Meaning, it’s not over. ZBA Chairman Andy Conroy on Thursday said the next public hearing will be June 28.

The contentious hearing featured about three hours of citizen commentary against the halfway house. It began with Firetree’s attorney, Thomas Cody, insisting that ZBA Chairman Andy Conroy should recuse himself, and a recap of why Commissioner Keith Lyon had done so.

Lyons’ email to Rochefort, expressing his support for her decision was read into the record. It referred to another email; Cody tried to make an issue of not having a copy of that email but Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann said he’d send it along.

At about 11 p.m., after 3.5 hours of testimony, the Board began discussing the case.

Commissioner Joe Beggan sided with Firetree, saying he thought the federal prisoner halfway house to be substantially the same use as provided by Pivot House, a drug rehab facility. He had been convinced by testimony last month from former Pivot Executive Director Tony Kiniry, who mentioned that many of Pivot’s clients were involved in the court system, he said.

There was a “disconnect on the application,” with Pivot listed as the owner and Firetree listed as a tenant, Commissioner Lee Levey replied.

“That’s how it got a building permit. It was only after the building permit got issue that the ownership changed,” Levey said.

That was deceptive, he said, but Beggan pointed out that Firetree had sent letters to Mayor Harry Rilling, then-Common Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) and Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik, announcing their intentions.

Rilling and Kulhawik did not reply, Ertel said last month. Asked about that Wednesday, she said that such letters get a reply about half the time.

People who were “500 feet down the hall” knew what Firetree was up to and should have told the Planning and Zoning Department, Beggan said.

The letter from Firetree was followed by 1.5 year silence as far as the public record goes, until, in July 2016, Rilling received an email from NancyOnNorwalk asking about the situation, Beggan said, reading the email exchange aloud, including Rilling’s reply that he was aware of the situation

“For a year and half, nobody knew? Nobody in the neighborhood?… Then it comes to us,” Beggan said.

Firetree did the work, passed a building inspection and then the fire marshal took a tour, commenting that everything had been done perfectly, Beggan said.

“After all of that, you can almost read the panic in the correspondences between city officials here. … That’s just not right,” Beggan said.

“I contend there’s a big disconnect between what goes on in Planning and Zoning and what goes on in the building department,” Levey said. “…For years, there’s been a lack of communication between the mayor’s office, Zoning and the Building Department.”

“I don’t think the use is exactly the same, certainly it’s not. But I think it is substantially the same,” Beggan said.

Commissioner Gregory Brasher said Firetree has a way of getting past governments. The use has changed from a voluntary drug rehab facility to a place where, “Convicts have to be there,” he said, although Firetree President Amy Ertel had said earlier that prisoners opt into the halfway house.

Levey and Conroy agreed that the use was similar but not the same, with Conroy expressing concern for the safety of the neighbors, an issue which he said didn’t “pop up” under Pivot’s ownership.

Firetree’s allocation of square feet per person doesn’t meet the Zoning code, Commissioner Taylor Strubinger said.

“Firefly bought into this. Before they invested $1 million (they needed) to be real specific instead of casually sending letters to the mayor and police chief without going back, and sit down and confirm that’s what they’re going to do,” Strubinger said.

The company has been involved in a lot of lawsuits, he said.

“If you think there’s a history of legal challenges you might want to make the next step beyond just submitting an application under Pivot, with you as a tenant,” Strubinger said, adding that Pivot was a voluntary drug rehab for the locals, versus a mandatory “be in your bed” equation.

Firetree’s proposed use would be a service to the community, “I just think the location is dead wrong,” Conroy said.

Firetree could have sat down with the P&Z staff and found a better site, bigger with better parking, Levey said, concluding, “They chose not to go down that road, which is unfortunate.”

Beggan, who had the lone vote in favor of the appeal, said, “I don’t see how much more they could have done.”


Concerned June 8, 2017 at 8:35 am

While I don’t think that the location is the right one for the house, Beggan does bring up a valid point that is far too often the case with Norwalk lately. T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted behind closed doors, and when the public realizes what is going on and they protest, suddenly the powers that be actually look at the paperwork, emails, agreements, they have agreed to and bow to public concerns.

The same thing happened with the mall and even the library parking lot. Let’s not forget the Mosque as well. If Firetree can prove that they did everything within their power to notify the town and the town dropped the ball (again), why should Firetree pay the price? Unfortunately it’s the residents as well, but why would we punish someone for going through the proper channels and getting the proper authorization, only to have it squashed at the last minute?

We are never going to attract businesses and support for Norwalk if we keep playing this bait and switch game.

Such an unfortunate situation for the residents and those that are in need of this housing.

Donna June 8, 2017 at 8:57 am

The mayor and police chief could have—-and should have—done more than just sit on this land mine. And communication between the Building and P&Z is suboptimal. But I’m not sure how these observations change Firetree’s use into one that aligns more closely with Pivot House’s. Firetree’s residents will be IN FEDERAL CUSTODY. This was surely not the case with Pivot House, whose residents were there voluntarily and as the second phase in a three phase program based on an acceptance of Christ. The ZBA may not want to come across as discriminating against halfway houses with no relgious affiliation, but a faith-based program is not the same as a secular program. In this case, Firetree now claims they do not do drug and alcohol rehab, whereas Pivot did. So Firetree will incarcerate Federal felons with known substance abuse problems, but treatment isn’t part of what they do. They’ve carved out a curious niche for themselves.

Firetree has submitted testimony and affidavits into the record in this case that are demonstrably false. At what point does an applicant forfeit the legitimacy of their claim as a result of offering up false or misleading evidence?

Tony Kiniry’s testimony was cited by one ZBA member, I believe Beggan. But has anyone verified that Kiniry accurately described Pivot House’s activities? Also I don’t recall Kiniry saying they had 19 beds or even 17 beds. He said they sometimes had as many as 19 occupants residing there. He basically admitted that Pivot House flaunted the rules of their permit. By that admission, does the ZBA conclude that the admitted violations are now grandfathered in as accepted uses? Similarly, to the extent that Pivot had residents who came in through referrals by the DOC, which constitutes a prohibited use in this neighborhood, does this new, prohibited use also now get grandfathered in? We’re not talking about easements here. These codes exist for a reason. Habitually violating the codes that govern your use does not legalize or codify your violations. Yet Firetree is trying to coast in on the wake of Pivot House’s admitted violations of the rules governing their nonconforming use.

Jennifer Bowswer testified about the positive impact of Firetree Capitol Pavilion in Harrisburg on the community. She was led by Cody to suggest that a new townhouse development across the street was a sign of neighborhood improvement that was a direct result of Firetree’s presence. This is demonstrably false. The development was done in partnership between HUD and the Harrisburg RDA. It’s low income housing. And it was developed “in spite of Firetree and not because of it.” Yet the ZBA gave no consideration to the credibility of this testimony, even though it was invalidated by several members of the public.

Firetree in my opinion has very little credibility, based not only on what they’ve done here but also on a long history of similar deceptions and misleading statements elsewhere. Yet the ZBA did not seem interested in questioning the credibility of the applicant. Perhaps they should. And perhaps Attorney McCann should explore case law in this area as well. Do ZBA applicants who are denied their requests and who subsequently sue the ZBA forfeit their standing as a result of false or misleading statements made during their ZBA hearings! I can’t imagine there isn’t some case law here, and some of it may involve this specific applicant.

I would like to see the affidavit from the Firetree Syracuse ED, presented by Tom Cody AFTER public comment was closed, submitted to some external scrutiny. I would like the ZBA to have access to credible information regarding the percent of protected handicapped individuals residing in Federal BOP RRCs on any given day and in any given year. With the threat of an FHA or ADA suit looming large, thanks to Mr, Cody, the ZBA just rolled over on this. Since the second half of the application has not yet been taken up by the ZBA, the time is ripe to do some research.

Also, FHA and ADA do not protect as disabled persons addicts who are currently abusing substances. How does the Firetree drug testing protocol align with this fact? If a Federal inmate fails a drug test, what does Firetree do with them? If they’re given a second chance, then that inmate who continues to reside at Firetree no longer benefits from FHA protections. So the ZBA needs to know how many RRC residents enter with disabilities but lose those protections due to continued or even occasional drug abuse. These statistics matter if Norwalk is prepared to protect itself against a legal challenge by Firetree. Based on a pattern of intimidation by Firetree, I see no reason to believe they’re just going to skulk away with their tails between their legs. Additionally, there is some threshold for sobriety, and I believe it may be 90 days. So a potential Firetree resident would need to be sober for 90 days in order to qualify as disabled due to his alcoholism disability.

The reasonable accommodation argument that seems to have cowed the ZBA needs further exploration. I am not confident in Mr. McCann’s ability to do this. Overall the content knowledge of this group was underwhelming. The public seemed to know more about the zoning regs than some of the professionals sitting at the table. Thankfully, we still have a part II in which to consider the plausibility of Firetree’s claim that their residents are protected under ADA and FHA. There is no reason to accept an internal memo prepared by a Firetree employee as dogma.

To Mr. Beggan’s point that “I don’t see how much more (Firetree) could have done,” I suggest he look at the timeline in the file. Since when is a letter to the mayor “community outreach”? Firetree could have done much, much more. The truth is they didn’t seem to want to. Their initial inquiries at P&Z were done under a veil of secrecy. Their zoning permit for brick & mortar upgrades did not list them as the owner and did not refer to their intended use. By Cody’s logic (and I believe Beggan’s as well), the existence of handicapped ramps and fire escapes was all the evidence P&Z needed to divine the intended use. Sorry but that’s just a load of crap. It’s not P&Z’s job to read the tea leaves of a zoning application for structural improvements and make any conclusions about use. They were always told the use would be the same. And it wasn’t until P&Z forced Firetree to apply for a tenant fit-up that P&Z knew definitively what their intentions were.

But yeah, shame on Harry Rilling, Doug Hempstead and Chief Kuhlawik for dropping the ball.

Rick June 8, 2017 at 11:43 am

Firetree rake notice you have declared war on quintard ave our soldiers are ready .

Ciyy hall take notice elections are near our voters are ready.

Facts time lines and privileged info leave out of comments its war folks!

Al Bore June 8, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Andy Conroy thinks there is a place in Norwalk for a prison just not here. I disagree there is no place in Norwalk for a prison type facility, Mr. Conroy you will not get my vote for mayor.

Concerned June 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Playing the Devil’s Advocate, why should Firetree go above and beyond the requirements? They did what they were supposed to, it’s our system that is broken, not them. Again, I’m not defending Firetree, but pointing out that they weren’t sneaky about this, just no one paid attention until it was too late.

I can only see one solution to this mess and it means that Norwalk will probably pay off Firetree to move elsewhere, the way they did the owners of the Mosque. Yet again shifting the burden to the taxpayers.

Donna June 8, 2017 at 5:44 pm

@Concerned Firetree can’t prove they did everything they could to notify the town. In fact they seem to have done everything they could to keep the neighbors and the P&Z in the dark as long as they could–long after they got their brick and mortar permit and completed work. They applied for a brick and mortar permit when the house still belonged to Pivot House. They seemed to have intentionally kept most of us in the dark. In 2014 their lawyer made indquiries about same use and did not name the client nor did she mention a clear change of use. Look up Firetree @concened and you will see a trail of litigation. They are not straight shooters based on what I’ve read.

Donna June 9, 2017 at 1:25 am

@Concerned, I suggest you go to P&Z and ask to see the file on Firetree to get a better picture of what they did and did not do in furtherance of their objective. For starters, they didn’t look closely at the zoning regulations governing nonconformities. That’s a rookie mistake. They withheld their identify from the zoning office for more than a year. I believe they were sneaky about this. And I have a lot of evidence to back it up.

The City will need to lawyer up to settle this mess. But this applicant has not been above board here just as they were not above board in Reading, PA, in Harrisburg PA, in Snyder County and elsewhere. Look them up.

Rick June 9, 2017 at 7:29 am

I want to thank all for the interest shown in this half way house fiasco .

Its tough to put into a sentence or two the road traveled by the residents of the city not just the street on this.

What most didn’t see unless you were at the meetings is the degree of intimidation used against the board and residents of the city from Firetree.

Overwhelming internet information on Firetree Orange stomes and other names this non profit from Pa use is a story in itself Donna is right.

The tough part was not getting the intial support from Himes, Blumenthal Murphy Duff Perone Whelms and segments the common counsel of Norwalk. Until it hit he news and started to unfold limited support grew from the above.

Using the If we get involved it may hurt the probable court case , or not our jurisdiction worked for a while and left our street to fend for ourselves.

We used the actions of other Dc reps in NY and PA reps and mayors and counsel members from other municipalities going back to the 80s who have had dealings with this Willimasburg company. The same issues the same skirting of zoning planning and the same kind of community boards created before the facts surfaced.

We then used real life examples of what federal half way houses work and how they don’t interact well with communities.

We relied on the above list of names to come to our aid and help us out it was pathetic .

This not to say all of our politicians ran and hid for cover we have a selected few who reached out to help and offer what they could , I had one counsel member on vacation call me and responded promptly another who ran for office lost and still to this day checks in to see how we are doing still on standby.

Then in talking to other Norwalkers the feeling is the same Norwalk has always been low hanging fruit and must change .

So I ask before the jury passes a verdict wait listen learn and yes support our city write a letter to the board ask them to deny any proposed alteration to our zoning laws that hurt the city not help it.

Help us turn up the heat on our elected officials hold them accountable and back those who have broken rank to help us out it is their city also.

To that Williamsburg company who maintains an eye on our media and reads our postings you picked on the wrong people .

Donna June 10, 2017 at 12:52 am

Thank you Rick for giving the rest of Norwalk some backstory. In my own neighborhood of Shorefront Park just down the road, I’m having trouble getting the neighborhood leadership on board. But I was heartened by those from Shorefront Park who did attend and speak on Wednesday. There is a misconception that Firetree is Quintard’s problem. It is not. This application is a challenge to our City, our zoning regulations and our and use boards, all appointed boards that are frequent springboards for elected office.

Donna June 10, 2017 at 11:48 am

Phase II–application for Permit by Special Exception, will be heard by ZBA on June 28th. Can we get more help from our neighbors in Harbor View and Village Creek? There were a few supporters from other neighborhoods on Wednesday, including East Norwalk. Would be nice to have more support from neighbors in South Norwalk. Village Creek and Harbor View are only a few steps away from 17 Quintard. The problem is on your doorstep. In my view, neighborhood spokespersons speaking on behalf of entire neighborhoods can be a very effective approach. One person speaking for 60 homeowners resonates differently than one person speaking on his or her own behalf. Both are needed.

Donna June 10, 2017 at 8:10 pm

Nancy am I reading this right? The ZBA hearing for the Specual Exception permit is June 28 at 2:18 pm?

Rick June 11, 2017 at 1:57 pm

Please join us

June 17 family cook out Quintard ave more info forthcoming from 12 to 7 follow the signs parking will be abundant

we like to invite everyone to our groundswell event and our passive meet and greet there will be no line of speakers this is for the kids in the morning and the adults later on in the day.

A table for handouts and space for others to bring information as we did before will be set up.

Come relax have a burger meet and others while we prepare round two.

Donna June 11, 2017 at 7:29 pm

@Rick, I admire the energy of Quintard neighbors and friends. Looking forward to the BBQ! Maybe Duff, Murphy, Himes and Blumenthal will show up! We need their support.

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