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Norwalk ZBA should reject Firetree’s federal prisoner halfway house

The former Pivot House at 17 Quintard Ave., renovated by Firetree LTD to become a halfway house for federal prisoners.

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Updated, 12:42 p.m.: Minor edit.

Firetree, Ltd., a non-profit based in Williamsport, PA, would like to operate a Federal Bureau of Prisons Residential Reentry Center at 17 Quintard Ave., former location of Pivot House.  Firetree was denied a tenant fit-up, a kind of occupancy permit, a few months ago by Zoning Inspector Aline Rochefort.  The folks who run this dubious do-gooder enterprise have since filed two motions with the ZBA: a motion for appeal of Ms. Rochefort’s decision, and failing that, a motion for a Special Exception.  The ZBA should reject both.

Firetree and their legal counsel have generated enough paper to fuel a bonfire, presumably to keep the folks at P&Z busy and to confound and intimidate the ZBA.  With a trail of quasi-evidence dating back to 2014, you might even think Firetree was gearing up for a fight before the City of Norwalk even knew who they were. And you’d be right.   Around the time the Federal Bureau of Prisons put this contract out to bid, in 2014, attorney Liz Suchy inquired at P&Z on behalf of an unnamed client who, she said, intended the same use for 17 Quintard that Pivot House had. Suchy didn’t name the client in 2014.  And she certainly didn’t mention the client’s history of winning taxpayer funded contracts and opening multi-bed facilities for Federal inmates in places they weren’t wanted. Firetree, Ltd. has already been awarded a $5.6 million Justice Department contract to house Federal inmates at 17 Quintard.  But you’d never know this was their plan if you looked at the first two years of correspondence with P&Z.  Suchy’s letters asked, assuming same use, can my client get a permit?

A sign posted Monday on Quintard Avenue alerts passersby to the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 7, in City Hall. This is the continuation of the public hearing on Firetree’s appeal of a Zoning decision not to grant a certificate of occupancy for 17 Quintard Ave., and, if the appeal is denied, a request for a special exception.

Firetree president William Brown, in his July 2016 letter to P&Z Director Mike Wrinn, also avoided the issue of the intended use.  No mention of prisons or prisoners, nor of the $5.6 million Federal Bureau of Prisons contract to provide beds for 19 – possibly more if the need arises – Federal inmates.  Brown did boast about how Firetree planned to continue the work of Pivot House.  But he forgot to mention that Pivot House was a faith-based sober living house for men, not an RRC under contract to the BOP, the federal version of the state Department of Corrections.    He made lots of dubious claims that Firetree had no plans to do anything different at 17 Quintard than what Pivot Ministries had been doing for decades.  Minus Jesus.  The emphasis at Pivot Ministries is “Accepting Christ, Learning Discipleship, Building Communities and Serving Others”.  Aside from William Brown and Firetree trying to serving up a load of crap about their work, there is no overlap at all in their use.

Firetree’s new attorney, Tom Cody, wants us to talk about the use and not the user. Fair enough. The use isn’t the same.  And we all know it.  But what about the user?  This user has been clogging up P&Z for going on three years.  P&Z staff are here to help the citizens who live here.  And they’re paid through our tax dollars.  So if you’re not worried about your Federal tax dollars going to Firetree, you should be worried about local tax dollars spent to pay Norwalk employees to deal with Firetree’s hay bale of redundant, misleading, erroneous, and intimidating papers.  They put everything in that file at least twice.  Except for the parts that the people cared about and the part that the P&Z needed to know.  By the way, Firetree, what do you plan to do at 17 Quintard?

In 2015, Pivot Ministries applied for and received a permit for brick and mortar upgrades to 17 Quintard.  Firetree’s name is on the application in the fine print.  But nowhere does it say who they are or what they do. I guess the folks at Pivot House would call this a sin of omission.  So for three years, Firetree has been planning to move Federal prisoners into our neighborhoods, threatening our families, putting our children at risk, and jeopardizing our property values.  But they didn’t want the P&Z to know this.  And they didn’t seem to want the Quintard neighbors to know it either, in spite of Mr. Brown’s assertions that Firetree’s operation at 17 Quintard will “remain an operation that serves only to benefit Norwalk and its residents.”  By what strangled calculus does the placement of 19 or more Federal prisoners into a residential neighborhood constitute a benefit to Norwalk and its residents?

But wait!  There’s more!  Firetree doesn’t just plan to darken our landscape with a modified prison dressed up with fresh plantings.  Firetree’s history of deception, litigation and greed clouds nearly every enterprise they’ve undertaken.  Turn over a rock in any town in Pennsylvania, and you’ll find a story about how Firetree tried to sneak their way in, bullying local zoning boards, and litigating with a tirelessness usually reserved for spawning salmon and bad rashes.  If you believe in Vampires, you know that they have to be invited in.  And once invited, they are impossible to get rid of.  Well, this applicant is Norwalk’s vampire.  Say no to Firetree at the door.  Because once we invite them in, no one will sleep easy at night.

Donna Smirniotopoulos

Norwalk

ZBA 17-0607 special meeting notice

14 comments

Rick June 6, 2017 at 7:33 am

thank you Donna ,Thank you Nancy and the rest of the people who have worked so hard fighting this outrageous company .

I can only hope anyone running for office in Norwalk understands ,sometimes the public is more informed than city hall.

It shouldn’t take a task force,ad hoc board or an angry crowd to fight issues that keep happening repeatedly all over the city.

Bob June 6, 2017 at 1:44 pm

Thank you, Donna, for your well researched and lively take on this Firetree saga. Zoning laws exist to prevent improper use of properties by zone. Quintard is all one- and two-family homes and should never have a prisoner or parolee holding facility anywhere on it. It is time for this property’s use to match that of the surrounding neighborhood; no more and no less.

Donna June 6, 2017 at 2:15 pm

Thank you Rick. The person we most need to hear from on this has busied himself removing and replacing chains lately. But I bet the second Firetree is sent packing–after the lawsuits are filed and after the settlement is reached–he’ll be smiling for his photo op and taking credit for the win.

Respect June 6, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Donna, I think you should hold your elected District B Council person accountable as well since she originally to serve on the community advisory board for Firetree.

Laura Lamorte June 6, 2017 at 6:11 pm

Over and over we learn that applicants are not required by Norwalk Zoning regulations to be transparent about their ultimate plans. The result is that our ZB in some respects “blindly” approves uses that are not appropriate for the surroundings nor beneficial to the City. To wit, 272-280 Main Ave/”The Village”: 🎶BJs, come out, come out wherever you are.🎶

Donna June 6, 2017 at 11:04 pm

@Laura Lamorte, in fairness to the P&Z, the applicant for the brick & mortar improvements was Pivot, not Firetree. I don’t know what changes could be written into the regulations that would require more transparency up front. When they got the permit to make improvements, Firetree knew what their intended use was. But P&Z had no way of knowing that Firetree was the end user. And they had no reason to conduct research into Firetree. I’ve had to dig to find dirt. We don’t want to pay our City employees to have to perform this kind of due diligence. The applicant was evasive, as they have been almost without fail everywhere they’ve been. In other cases in PA, Firetree has used the omission of relevant detail as a legal excuse. “Well,” Allen Ertel would say, “don’t you all work in the same building?”

@Respect, I would like to give Ms. Bowman the benefit of the doubt. Like me, Faye Bownman initially believed that Firetree was continuing the work of Pivot House, because this is what Firetree said. The mayor received a letter from Firetree in 2014 that spelled out with more clarity and detail what their intended use was. Why he sat on this letter is anyone’s guess.

Rick June 6, 2017 at 11:57 pm

@respect with respect

Holding everyone accountable would be the goal.

Firetree hired a local police officer from Darien with 30 years of service to run the Quintard ave facility. Its hard to fathom with Norwalks law enforcement capability no one realized what was going on. The Chief was also on the board.

Firetree had a contract to bring in food daily to feed its convicts never once explaining to the Darien food provider who would of innocently sent a teenage girl to a facility like that to deliver food. He was grateful we made him privy (yes money spent to recoup in a suit )

When I spoke to the council president and laid out the facts his first response was to focus on his members. He did just that and responded quickly there was no hesitation. The district rep acted just as fast once they understood the facts as well , bearing in mind it was the street committee who provided the facts not the city.

Its odd how the other members on the firetree board at the time relied on our input not the cities. The Church was convinced with help from city officials to join as well. They were getting bodies to fill their house of worship.

Most of us saw a fractured Democratic party when asking for support. What I found was deep seated resentment towards members of the same party over a variety of issues not surprising back room deals have been suggested in the city true or not its hard to discount such antics once you have been exposed to Norwalks political playground.

The local employees who firetree hired from the city were not qualified to run such a facility it was a joke they would show up in the morning they become belligerent towards residents knowing the job they were hired to do was not going to happen.They were kids!

We assume Firetree renting condos in the same building on water st next the redevelopment authority offices was to pad the loss in the suit as well.$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Imagine how the residents felt after pleading with the city to stop this facility when the truck showed up to deliver prison furniture and lockers in prison gray? How would you feel?

There is also an abundant amount of facts never shared with the media that may surprise you. Id love to share it but not now.

I met with the prison officials when they came to inspect the facility on the street they knew before the contracts were signed that this facility was not going to fly ‘The conversation lasted a half hour the heard from others as well clearly this was not a good idea.

Now we hear emails and communications from elected officials have been requested from Firetree even our elected officials in Dc are feeling the heat. I thought when talking to a congressman it was privileged I don’t know.

I can say without any reservation our elected District B Council person is on board with us , its the others from city to state to federal elected positions Im not so sure.

Im not convinced everything that was asked for from some of our elected officials was taken seriously. .

One last thing the Pivot House ministers never carried guns yet the Darien retired police officer in charge of this proposed empty facility did carry in the short time he was here.

Whats that tell you?

Rick June 7, 2017 at 1:11 am

@ Donna I trust during the court proceedings time lines and who was involved will come out.

Where we had a heads up and was able to get blueprints and communications early we find a lot has been put aside for court yet we did get there early for a good seat. The blue prints don’t reflect what was done .

Finding the assessor at Firetree one day and pointing out the garage that is a chapel that was never recorded or taxed as one is a problem. He agreed poor communication left him at a disadvantage to do his job. The garage was to have two spaces a very important fact when giving permits.Now what?

When we pressed the city employee and told him about the huge underground vault put into the front yard drew a perplexed look he knew then there was issues.

When you work on your property and disturb the sidewalk you have to repair replace or make good so there isn’t a public safety issue.

The new water main did just that, then when Firetree installed the main SNEW knowing the water pressure was already low went and passed all the plans anyways. its obvious when they were told 5 bathrooms Firetree forgot to mention 4 sinks showers and flushes in each bathroom. Another reason the city needs to wake up and work together. SNEW considers a bathroom with just 1 sink flush and shower how sad. SNEW needs to review their policy and permits.

Back to the sidewalk pictures show the sidewalk was never fixed right or the street maybe someone can find PENA and tell him the work they did on Quintard was piss poor. Even the DPW came out took pictures and agreed a very substandard job for any street opening .Not something that would fly with a regular homeowner. Its dangerous the way it was left leaving the city liable to injury.

Get a copy of the blueprints and realize there is plenty of evidence that shows there is enough blame to go around when comparing salaries of the responsible inspectors. The fire dept passed the blueprints that doesn’t even match the work done.

Norwalk is low hanging fruit just look at the new chicken coops on Day st. Google that prefab company if you want some insight on another home run Norwalk just gave up.

Lisa Thomson June 7, 2017 at 5:13 am

Rick, Well stated. The amount of blood, sweat and tears that you and Quintard residents have put into protecting your safety, homes and single largest investment is awe inspiring. Every neighborhood in this city has a story to tell about ridiculous and litigious developments that have been allowed to occur, with each having their own tangled web of players, lies and deceit.

Donna June 7, 2017 at 10:17 am

This will more than likely wind up in court regardless of tonight’s ZBA vote. I suspect the ZBA will not allow the appeal of Ms. Rochefort’s denial of a tenant fit up permit. Thank you, @Lisa Thompson, for reminding us why zoning regulations exist–to protect our single largest investment, our homes. The history of zoning is written in the avoidance of unwanted uses near family homes. We cannot diversity our houses to reduce risk. An unwanted use can tank property values.

Rick and other Quintard neighbors have had to do their own research and the web of lies has stil not been fully unraveled. The single most important point for ZBA tonight is deciding “same use”. The fact that mothers are afraid for their children now when they weren’t before is telling. Rick raises a great point. The Pivot House ministers didn’t carry guns. The retired Darien cop that Firetree hired to oversee their operation does. If you need guns to keep your inmates In line, you’re no longer a sober living house. You’re a prison. And that is a change in use.

Rick June 7, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Terminology on halfway houses and sober houses have also changed over the years including how treatment is given since Norwalk zoning laws have been coined.

Where Quintard ave second floor layout has locked psychiatric units as many as 4 at its another layer of concern what belongs in a residential area to all residents of the city .

Norwalk should learn from others like New Cannan and be proactive responding after the facts only can cause problems.

Where Norwalk needs changes and seem to be in denial look whats going on today close to home. They push them out of New Cannan into Norwalk and what then?

http://newcanaanite.com/letter-proposed-change-to-zoning-regulations-threatens-all-new-canaan-residential-neighborhoods-52316

Donna June 8, 2017 at 1:21 am

Firetree is claiming their residents are entitled to accomodations under the Fair Housing Act, and tonight they presented an affidavit from the Syracuse executive director, claiming 70% of residents qualify as disabled. The ZBA should ask to see better statistics from Firetree and from the Bureau of Prisons on these figures. I find it hard to believe than on any given day, 70% of RRC residents nationwide qualify as disabled. And Firetree did not supply this support, only an affidavit from their own employee.

Significantly, FHA and ADA supports for people disabled due to drug and alcohol abuse do not apply to active users. As soon as you use, you lose your protections. The ZBA needs to ask Firetree how they plan to dispose of residents who continue to abuse substances and who are therefore no longer eligible for protections under FHA. And attorney McCann should do the asking. He should have done it tonight.

I was disappointed with Joe Beggan’s vote. Seemed like he was bummed the ZBA was left to do cleanup for the Mayor. And while I don’t blame his irritation, his purview as a ZBA member is to look at the code. And no one really bought the same use argument. People on lockdown who happen to have drug problems, who are federal prisoners, and who are living in a Federally funded RRC so they can have access to “life skills” training and other “life coaching” are not even tangentially related to men who voluntarily treatment for substance abuse who live in a community of sober individuals bound by a shared faith. The religious aspect does not confer additional consideration aside from it’s “otherness” by several orders of magnitude from an RRC housing prisoners who, according to the Fedearl BOP, “remain in custody while serving a sentence imposed by a U.S. District Court or DC Superior Court.”

Hard to argue same use between voluntary residents and persons “in custody” of the FBOP. Loved to hear Tom Cody attempt to split hairs between the Department of Corrections and the Fedearl Bureau of Prisons. We saw it coming. These entities are identical aside from the types of prisons they cover. The intent of the prohibition on uses by the DOC is to prohibit use by incarcerated persons.

Bob June 9, 2017 at 1:22 pm

@Donna, also with regard to Joe Beggan’s vote, even if he felt the use was the same (he said he didn’t think it was the same but similar) and thought Firetree’s use could be a non-conformant use that was grandfathered in, he would be ignoring the bulk of non-conformant use law which says that non-conformant uses should be eliminated in reasonable periods of time. Since Pivot’s use dates back to 1977 or so, it has been 40 years and if that is not enough time to eliminate this use than there would be no reasonable time period ever. Clearly, non-conformant use cannot be allowed as zoning has already indicated and Firetree’s repeated statements that they need a minimum of 17 beds violates current zoning law for halfway houses which allows for only a maximum of 12 residents. (Firetree has stated they will not run a house limited to 12 residents because they cannot make it profitable). Therefore, there is no zoning conformant way for them to operate at the property either. Given that the entire community is against this and Firetree has not a single shred of evidence for any ADA discriminatory behavior (nor any ADA covered inmates assigned to the property), there is no reason to grant a special exception to the zoning code in any future meeting of the ZBA either.

Donna June 9, 2017 at 11:59 pm

The goal of 118-800 is to reduce the nonconformity and/or bring it into conformity with current zoning regs. The sale of 17 Quintard was an opportuinty to bring the property into conformity. Regarding disabled occupants, Firetree is claiming evidence that cannot be independently verified. It’s hearsay. I found the late submission of this affidavit from the Firetree Syracuse director questionable, and the ZBA should have rejected it outright. Their counsel, Mr. McCann, should have rejected it as hearsay. Why didn’t he? Why does the ZBA accept statements from applicants at face value without further study? Their approach to Tony Kiniry’s statements were similar. If Kiniry said Pivot House had 19 occupants, then Firetree is okay to house 19 occupants. Forget about the code for a C residence zone that limits halfway houses to 12 occupants. That is the logic that Joe Beggan seemed to folllow. Makes you wonder how people get onto ZBA and why they’re allowed to stay.

Firetree can pursue this use elsewhere in Norwalk without zoning prohibitions, as Conroy stated. Why move into a neighborhood where the use they seek is prohibited even under a Special Permit under 118-1410? Makes no sense. Either they’re bullies or they’re dummies.

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