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.”