NORWALK, Conn. – The Firetree battle is going on just a bit longer, with the continuing back and forth hinging on the definition of “structural improvements.”
Most Zoning Board of Appeals members on Thursday expressed skepticism about Firetree’s claim to have spent only $19,000 on structural improvements on the former Pivot House, and ZBA Chairman Andy Conroy opted to continue the public hearing so that staff could delve into what was done on the property.
Firetree’s attorney, Thomas Cody, called the requests “blatantly unfair” because they came at the end of the hearing, although ZBA member Lee Levey had said he’d requested further documentation from Cody but hadn’t gotten it.
Firetree says it spent $600,000 on renovations for the former Pivot House after buying it for $470,000. The dollar figure is important because Firetree is asking for a special exception to allow it to open its federal prisoner halfway house; one of the criteria for a special exception is that the percentage spent on structural improvements cannot be more than 25 percent of the assessed value of the building.
The three-hour hearing began with South Norwalk residents continuing their arguments against Firetree’s special exception, focusing on the other criteria involved, as well as attacking the Pennsylvania nonprofit’s legal argument that Norwalk is discriminating against the disabled by refusing to allow the halfway house to open.
“Halfway house has no legal definition,” Dr. Jeffrey Dietz said. “If we are trying to assert this is a halfway house, I urge you to consider common sense, which is ‘halfway’ means ‘in the middle.’ In the middle of what? These people that would be coming into our neighborhood are not in the middle, they are still in prison. They are not in the middle of anything.”
Bernie Madoff is in prison and if he says he is depressed then that diagnosis would justify calling him disabled, Dietz said.
“Remember correlation is not the same as causation,” Dietz said. “…People go to prison not because they are mentally ill or because of substance abuse. They go to prison because they break the law.”
Others went after the assertion that the former Pivot House had as many as 20 people in it, which Firetree is attempting to use as justification for its 17 beds.
“I’ve been there for almost six years,” said Maria Salkie, who lives next door to the former Pivot House. “I only saw seven or eight people at a time.”
“Pivot Ministries was like a small group…. It’s completely different. It’s going to be a big impact,” she said, addressing the special exception criteria that says, “The proposed use will have the same impact or a lesser impact upon the surrounding area than the existing nonconforming use.”
“Lack of parking has always been an issue,” Salkie said. “…I feel like there’s many things that are going to cause an impact.”
Scott Kuhner said he’d heard that a neighbor has an offer on his house, contingent on ZBA turning Firetree down.
“You can see the impact it will have,” he said.
Steve Balazs said he never saw more than five or six Pivot House residents in a van heading for the YMCA, and attacked the idea that Firetree had permission to build a halfway house because it was issued building permits.
There was a building 20 years ago in New York City that had permits for a building that was 10 stories higher than allowed by Zoning, and the city made them take down those stories, he said.
Urban Mulvehill, former ZBA member, referred to the lawsuit Firetree has filed, appealing the ZBA’s refusal to overturn Zoning Inspector Aline Rochefort denial of a certificate of occupancy for the halfway house.
“I want to urge you not to be cowed by what was once a threat and now a reality, that the city of Norwalk is going to be sued for discrimination … I am confident the legal department will present arguments and will defeat that,” Mulvehill said.
Cody began his rebuttal by saying that assertions that the Fair Housing Act do not apply are “patently wrong.” Firetree is asking for 17 beds but has testified that on average there will be no more than 15 residents, he said.
Nearly half an hour later, Levey said he’d gone to the Building Department to look at documents and could not correlate the construction documents to what had been supplied by Cody, on his request.
Cody said affidavits supplied by Firetree’s architect and builder claiming that Firetree had spent no more than $19,000 on structural improvements are what’s “most relevant.”
The testy exchange escalated into an argumentative tone briefly, and Conroy asked them to “bring it down a little.”
The assessed value of 17 Quintard Ave., the former Pivot House, is $391,590, meaning that the maximum that could be spent on structural improvements would be $95,000, Cody said.
“I need to see a lot more detail,” Conroy said, explaining that he’s applied for building permits and new windows, doors and stairwells can be considered structural.
“The word structure can be taken two different ways,” said Levey, an architect. “One is the bare bone structure of rafters, joists, beams… the more you delve into the meaning, the semantics of structure, it refers also to the actual physical being of the building…. I think you are taking a very narrow view of the word structure.’”
“I need staff, the building staff and our attorney, to take an in-depth look at permits and the valuation process and be consistent with all the valuation judgments made to date… and therefore applying that to the permits and documents that have been submitted,” Conroy said.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann said Rochefort had already done that.
“I disagree with the $19,000,” Rochefort said. She offered no details, until asked, estimating, “Very roughly,” $80,000 for structural improvements.
“I think we need the complete final breakdown from the contractor and I am sure Firetree has it because they paid the bill,” Levey said. “…It can’t be done for ($19,000). I will swear to it as an architect.
McCann volunteered that the budget could be deceiving, as $400,000 work was estimated, and $90,000 of it was for a sprinkler system.
“I am not having confidence in the numbers,” Conroy said. “…I think the only way to resolve that is to take a good look at this.”
“This is coming at us so late in the process as to be blatantly unfair,” Cody said. “No one has ever raised this to us from the city staff.”
Touching on other issues, Conroy later commented that he saw the halfway house as inappropriate to the zone.
“I still see it as being significantly different for a residential zone,” Conroy said.
ZBA member Greg Brasher asked Cody if prisoners have to be disabled to get in.
“It’s not a requirement but it is one of the qualifications to go there,” Firetree Vice President Amy Ertel said.
“What?” someone in the audience said.
Brasher summed it up, “It’s not necessary, but to be sentenced or incarcerated is.”
“You mentioned no impact,” ZBA member Taylor Strubinger said. “It seems to me that there’s a substantial revenue loss for the city of Norwalk for the loss of personal property taxes.”
“I would agree,” Conroy said, asserting that Firetree will apply for tax exempt status and not pay property taxes on the halfway house.
“I am looking at the impact on the complete neighborhood,” Strubinger said. “I have heard they have lost 75 percent of the value of their property.”
Comments about property values are “all speculation,” Cody said.
“There is a broader impact,” Conroy said, going after Firetree’s assertion that its residents don’t generate a great amount of crime.
“It is not a matter of 10 doing it it’s a matter of one,” Conroy said. “…That affects changes the nature and complexion of the neighborhood.”
Again, “complete speculation,” Conroy said. “Firetree has not had that experience happen so you are speculating and generalizing and stereotyping.”
Conroy then expressed dissatisfaction with McCann, asking if McCann had gotten the information he had been asked to get from the Bureau of Prisons.
“I took assignment seriously,” McCann said, explaining that he’d left several voicemails trying to find out whether disabilities are considered when BoP recommends that prisoners be released to a reentry facility, such as Firetree’s halfway house.
He had done research on the topic and suggested to Cody that it would be in his interest to present evidence on how disability plays into the selection process, he said.
“The U.S. Attorney was unable or unwilling to answer,” McCann said.
As the hearing drew to a close, Conroy drew commentary from ZBA member Joe Beggan, who had been silent.
Beggan was the only vote in favor of overturning Rochefort’s decision, in the previous application made by Firetree.
“I think the impact on the community is a little bit different. That’s for sure, but I don’t think it’s shockingly different, as portrayed by the neighbors,” Beggan said.
Conroy drew out more from Beggan, saying that McCann needs “all the comments.”
“I have done building renovations my whole life,” Beggan said. “To me, ‘structural improvements’ mean major beams and the actual definition is a major change in the actual building itself. This building’s footprint is still the same.”
Began said he blames Mayor Harry Rilling, Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik and then-Council President Doug Hempstead for not responding to a letter Firetree sent in 2014 announcing that it was going to open a federal prisoner halfway house.
Common Council members Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) and Faye Bowman (D-District B) talked to Firetree, he said.
He addressed the audience.
“These people are the ones that you elect to represent you and they didn’t represent you, from the mayor all the way down,” Beggan said, although Melendez does not represent the SoNo residents. “These people came in and applied for permits like any other case does over the five years that I have been here. It’s as simple as that.”
Conroy said he was continuing the hearing, as permits need to be researched, but emphasized that he wants it done as quickly as possible, preferably within the next two weeks.