Updated, July 14: Ferone can appeal. Updated, 7:11 a.m.: Copy edits, new headline
NORWALK, Conn. — The Zoning Board of Appeals Thursday overturned a controversial permit for a senior living facility in West Norwalk.
Planning and Zoning Director Steve Kleppin issued a permit earlier this year for a single-family residence at 7 Forest Hill Road to house up to five unrelated senior citizens who would each rent space and share a common kitchen and other facilities. Two caregivers would assist residents during the day and one at night.
Neighbors Mark and Patricia Lorusso appealed, arguing that the proposal was congregate housing, which, like a boarding house, is not permitted in a Triple A residential neighborhood.
“The way I read the regulations for a Triple A zone in Norwalk is it does not intend for a commercial business to be allowed to operate,” Lorusso said at the hearing. “If you look at the intent of this business, published by the owner and by reference seeing how they are advertising, I don’t see how it can be described as anything but a commercial business.”
“They are intending to run a commercial enterprise under the guise of a single-family dwelling,” Lorusso said.
“I think what we have here is an opportunity for a property owner to get approval based on what I think is probably a very broad based and perhaps ambiguous or outdated definition,” Lorusso said, later asserting that approving the home might lead to the “degradation or deterioration of what many think, including me, is a triple a zone in Norwalk.”
“I think this was one of those decisions that on the surface we would rather have been on the neighbors’ side and said, ‘Yeah, we don’t think this is right,’ but unfortunately we have to abide by the wording in the regulations,” Kleppin told board members, defending his decision to issue the permit. “In this case, the definition of family to me trumps pretty much everything else that’s in the regulations, in terms of rooming house, boarding house, whatsoever.”
Gary Ferone of Fairfield Family Care LLC also defended the facility, pointing out that he doesn’t own the home but would run it.
“The law clearly states that the home itself cannot provide any care. The homeowner cannot provide any care, that’s against the law. But there is nothing to say in the law you can’t purchase a home… and rent it out. This is not a commercial business that is being run,” he said.
“I don’t think the regulations prohibit commercial uses in residential zones,” Kleppin said. “… It doesn’t prohibit people from renting out their house.”
In his presentation to the ZBA, Lorusso read the Zoning regulation’s definition of “family:”
“One (1) or more persons occupying a single dwelling unit, provided that unless all members are related by blood or marriage (or adoption), no such family shall contain more than five (5) persons, but further provided that domestic servants employed on the premises may be housed on the premises without being counted as a ‘family’ or families.”
The regulation dates to 1974, when the term “assisted living didn’t barely exist,” he said.
“They are not providing medical care. It is a fine line and a loophole, but they are not providing medical care,” Kleppin said to the ZBA, explaining that it doesn’t meet the definition of a nursing home.
“This arrangement has been reviewed and accepted by other municipalities as a viable and acceptable means of providing living options to seniors. Three such homes currently exist in Stamford,” Attorney Joseph Capalbo wrote to Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Mike Wrinn in February in support of the proposal.
Lorusso argued that the Stamford situation was different – the permit there had been granted and the business up and running before neighbors became aware, so it never went before the Stamford ZBA, he said.
“They were powerless to do anything but go along with what the building department had permitted because they didn’t have the power to overturn it,” Lorusso said. “…I don’t believe it fits before you in the definition of family as intended.”
Planning and Zoning alerted the Forest Hill neighbors because it didn’t want a repeat of what happened on Quintard Avenue, Kleppin said, referring to the outcry over a federal prisoners halfway house.
“That in essence gave them the opportunity to appeal. Had we just issued the permit, they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to appeal,” Kleppin said.
Residents spoke at the hearing in support of the appeal. “One of the principals of this town is to protect our residential communities. This is a real breakthrough if you permit something like this to take place in a residential community,” David Davidson said.
Harold Barnes said he and his wife bought their Forest Hill home in 1993 or 1996.
“I never thought that we would be facing this, especially on our road, Triple A area. Here we are talking about a boarding house or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “… The way I feel, I love Norwalk. But Norwalk let us down, or will let us down if this goes through.”
“I think we are all very sensitive,” Richard Koch said. “You know, West Norwalk is a very fragile place. It’s a very beautiful place and we love being here. But there are economic impacts. When you start to let a cancer get into a neighborhood you don’t know where it’s going to go and what else is going to happen to West Norwalk. If you open the door to this, how many other people are going to be adversely impacted?”
“I don’t understand… why if there is a close proximity to a couple of definitions in the regulations … why does family trump boarding house?” he asked. “If it meets the definitions, why does he default to ‘family’?”
ZBA member Lee Levey recounted the time when there was trouble on Comstock Hill Road when a home was rented to five former state prisoners.
ZBA Chairman Joe Beggan said he’d studied the website promoting the senior home, describing “around the clock care included but not limited to bathing,” which he said meant the caregivers would be cooking and providing other services.
He called it a nursing home.
There’s no medical care, Kleppin said.
“They have walked the fine line, working through the minefield very carefully, where they have five people and they have a common caretaker,” Kleppin said. “So again, they have manipulated the system a little bit and worked it into the definitions.”
ZBA’s unanimous decision in favor of Lorusso’s appeal hinged on the Zoning regulations’ definition of “family” and “boarding house.”
“I think you could squeak by on our stupid definition of a family but given that they are not independent, they are being serviced, I think it follows that it’s a boarding house,” Conroy said.
“I do not think that because they were able to convince people in Stamford that they are something other than that this can have any effect at all on what I think for Norwalk,” Beggan said, when the ZBA moved toward a vote.
“I turned around completely on this, based on this hearing. It’s a boarding house,” Levey said, with Beggan agreeing, “The use of the premises falls more in line with the definition of boarding house than it does a family of five living together.”
“I am the first to admit that, and no offense to anybody, I am not trying to offend, but the Norwalk Zoning regulations are, it’s not the best document in the world,” Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said. “It’s not the best set of regulations I have come across and it needs a top to bottom overhaul. I have been here about 18 months now. We have addressed a lot of things in that time along that front.”
The Zoning Commission “has put forward amendment to definition of family and definition of boarding house to try to make them align because there is a lot of conflict,” Kleppin said. He also noted that the Commission is considering lowering the number of unrelated people who can live together as a family to three.
On Saturday, Norwalk Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann said that Ferone can challenge the ZBA’s decision in court.
“I imagine he will, although I have not heard either way. He has 15 days from publication of the decision,” McCann wrote.
NancyOnNorwalk called Ferone on Friday, but has not gotten a reply.