Firetree, Norwalk neighbors, to continue argument to Zoning Board of Appeals

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

Updated, 6:16 p.m.: Meeting cancelled due to lack of a quorum.

NORWALK, Conn. – Attorneys representing Firetree LTD have plenty to respond to when they make a second pitch to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Neighbors of the former Pivot House at 17 Quintard Ave., a building renovated by Firetree with the intention of opening a halfway house for federal prisoners, on May 4 presented an organized, well-researched argument against a Zoning approval for the facility before being cut short by the lateness of the hour. More arguments against approval are expected at the continuation of the public hearing, some of them targeted at Firetree’s claim that a Zoning denial would be discrimination against disabled people.

The meeting was scheduled for Thursday, May 18, but has been cancelled due to lack of a quorum, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said.

ZBA Chairman Andy Conroy stopped part one of the hearing at about 11 p.m., saying both that the evening needed to conclude and that the city’s lawyers needed time to research the legalities of a written argument presented to the city about two hours before the hearing.

“Approval of the Appeal or Application is necessary as a reasonable accommodation {under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the American Disabilities Act} to afford Firetree’s residents – who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and mental health impairments – an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the housing of their choosing,” Attorney Thomas Cody of Robinson & Cole wrote to the ZBA on May 4.

“The arguments seem pretty weak,” opposition leader Bob Weiner said of Cody’s letter, in a May 9 email to Quintard supporters, advising that rebuttals were needed when the hearing resumes.

No one spoke in favor of the application at the May 4 hearing.

The 10 opponents who got in before Conroy’s deadline included Klaus Schmitt, an architect, who offered a point by point reasoning of why the application does not conform to Norwalk Zoning regulation; John Flynn, who offered colorful commentary about what it’s like to live on Quintard Avenue; and Rudolph Weiss, who said, “Based on what I have seen and heard tonight I do not believe this application was put in in good faith.”

Zoning issued an over-the-counter approval for renovations on the property in June 2015 – to Pivot House. Firetree then bought the house that July.

“It seems to me that Firetree and its lawyers tried to come in and sneak through this application, it would be easier for them to come back and ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission,” said Weiss, a Shorefront Park resident. “Just because they spent millions of dollars doing this, they should not be rewarded for their deception. It’s inconceivable that the people in charge of this company and the lawyers did not know that they needed to give additional information to the city of Norwalk.”

Firetree is a federally recognized non-profit, but Weiss said, “Just because a business is a 501(c)3 corporation doesn’t mean somebody is not profiting.”

Nonprofit CEOS make millions, he said, concluding that argument with, “There is a big difference between a ministry and a corporation that operates as a 501(c)3 but has private owners at the helm.”

The fire escape installed by Firetree LTD at 17 Quintard Ave. is frequently described as not conforming to the character of the neighborhood.

There are three sections of Norwalk Zoning that apply to the continuation of a pre-existing non-conforming use, Schmitt said, explaining that all of them indicate that substantial changes to the existing building means you have to get a new permit.

“I think if any of you have seen the house before and after there isn’t much of an argument about alterations,” he said.

Firetree has said that it spent $500,000 renovating the building to meet the codes required for a federal Bureau of Prisons halfway house.

An applicant can’t spend more than 25 percent of the assessed value of a property on renovations without coming in for a special permit, Schmitt said.

Firetree paid for $429,000 for the former Pivot House, according to Town Clerk Rick McQuaid.

The house is in a C residence zone, for which Zoning regulations say, “Halfway houses allowing a maximum of twelve (12) persons with no less than two hundred fifty (250) square feet of living area per person, except that a halfway house for persons under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections shall not be permitted.”

“I think the intent here is this cannot be a halfway house with people from the federal Bureau of Prisons,” Schmitt said.

Firetree’s substantial change of use for the house would require a special permit, which would require plans for traffic and parking, Schmitt said.

A deck built by Firetree at 17 Quintard Ave. is too close to the fence, a neighbor said Wednesday.

It’s a narrow street, an old neighborhood with old utilities, and parking is an issue, he said. The regulations indicate that the use would require a property with twice the square footage of a single-family home in the area, which would be 10,000 square feet, but the lot is 6,000 square feet, he said.

Approving the federal prisoner halfway house would be a “flagrant disregard of zoning regulations as they are written,” Schmitt said.

Former ZBA Chairman Urban Mulvehill also attacked Firetree’s lack of parking.

“It seems superficial but… They are going to have people coming and visiting… They would be required to come up with some kind of parking plan if they were going to apply for a special permit,” he said.

Parking on the property is limited to the driveway; there were two spaces in the garage, according to Mulvehill, but that has been converted to another use.

“It was very clear it was kind of an oily operation where they made the application, they didn’t disclose what Firetree wanted to do,” Mulvehill said. “…They really didn’t want to alert anybody what they were doing so they tried to sneak it through.”

Firetree’s lawyers said the company is $2 million in the hole because Norwalk has refused to issue a Certificate of Occupancy. That includes the revenue the company would have gotten from the Bureau of Prisons, but Mulvehill pointed out that Firetree has also said it would barely break even once the home was open.

Diane Cece, an East Norwalk activist, said she had researched the Bureau of Prisons website.

Prisoners sent to the halfway house could “be a mix of people who are on parole or probation or what’s called pre-release,” she said. “… My understanding of what is called Pre-release is someone who is technically still an inmate. They are technically still incarcerated, they are just not in the prison building that they were in. But they are still a prisoner and they are not at liberty to come and go as they please.”

The house is literally feet away from the house next door, where children live, she said.

“I don’t see any guarantee where the inmates wouldn’t be sexual offenders or violent criminals,” Cece said.

Flynn, who lives five doors down from the house, said that construction began before Port-O-Potties were installed, and workers defecated behind his garage.

“I called the police, can’t get a police report. Wonderful. I have not been able to get a police report in 17 years. This is my second gripe,” Flynn said. “…We have no police protection in our neighborhood. Zero. One year there were 12 shots fired, one month ago, seven shots fired. Two Chinese guys jump over my back fence with hammers. Three people report it, no police report.”

He said, “We can’t have convicts coming in in droves…. They are not stepping on my property, I am drawing the line. I am up to here.”

The view of 17 Quintard Ave. from a neighbor’s backyard.


6 responses to “Firetree, Norwalk neighbors, to continue argument to Zoning Board of Appeals”

  1. Donna

    The ZBA should deny Firetree’s appeal and their application for a Special Exception. The appeal should fail because the decision of Aline Rochefort to deny a Certificate of Occupancy was the correct one based on existing zoning regulations for pre-existing nonconforming uses in a C residence zone. And the applicants fail the pH test for a Special Exception.

    The ZBA will consider the following regulations:

    118-800 which exists to permit pre-existing nonconformities to continue under the following conditions:

    118-800. C. A nonconforming use of land or structure shall not be enlarged, extended or altered unless the use is changed to one permitted in the zone in which it is located. No nonconforming use shall be extended or expanded by variance.

    Ms. Rochefort correctly interpreted the application against 118-800.C. The application to use 17 Quintard for a Federally Funded Bureau of Prisons Residental Reentry Center represented a change in the pre-existing nonconforming use. The proposed use is an enlargement of the previous nonconforming use, which was a sober living faith based halfway house for no more than 12 men. The fact that Tony Kiniry allowed sleepovers on the sofa does not mean the preexisting nonconformity was grandfathered in for up to 19 residents and 5 staff. Pivot House’s failure to comply with the limits of their use does not result in an increase in the nonconformity. Also since Firetree intends to house persons from the prison system who are still classified as “inmates”, Firetree is also extending the preexisting nonconformity AND requesting a use expressly prohibited in a C zone even by special permit. Halfway houses may not operate in C zones if they are under the juristiction of the Department of Corrections, which is the state equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

    With regard to the second part of Firetree’s request to the ZBA for a Special Exception, article 118-800 further states:
    C(4) a nonconforming use of land or structure may be changed to another nonconforming use
    (a) provided that a Special Exception as per 118-1410(2)(e) is granted by the ZBA upon finding that:
    The proposed use is equally appropriate or more appropriate to the zone than the existing nonconforming use.

    The proposed use will have the same impact or a lesser impact upon the surrounding area than the existing nonconforming use.
    (4)(b) Provided that the cost of structural alterations to a structure changed to a new nonconforming use shall not exceed 25% of the assessed value of the existing structure.

    There is no metric by which Firetree’s plan to house 19 Federal prisoners and 5 staff round the clock at 17 Quintard can be construed as the same impact or lesser impact upon the surrounding area than Pivot House.

    Perhaps more importantly for the ZBA in the redering of their decision, Firetree has admitted they have already spent in excess of $500,000 for improvements to 17 Quintard. They purchased the property for more than $400,000. While I have not looked at the field card, it’s a safe bet that the value of the structue was considerably less than $400,000. Therefore, Firetree fails 118-800.C.(4) as well becasue the applicant spent more than the total value of the property on improvements to the property (i.e. more than 25%).

    There are other zones in Norwalk where the proposed use by Firetree would be permitted by code with a Special Exception. This is important because of Firetree’s implied intent to seek compensatory damages. To the extent that they could pursue their use elsewhere and chose the wrong location, their claim has no standing in the courts.

  2. Danny

    I believe Donna has a point.

    Ms. Rochefort is clearly doing her job and doing it well.

    If the appeal is granted, the City will lose all credibility.

  3. Debora Goldstein

    Not only should the appeal be denied, but so should the application for a special exception to convert from one non-conforming use to another non-conforming use.

  4. Donna

    This applicant is, in the opinion of many familiar with the proposal, a “bad actor”. Amy Ertel’s letter to Mr. Wrinn from last July states that Firetree would continue the same use as Pivot House. The Federal Bureau of Prisons designation “Residential Reentry Center” did not exist when Pivot House was grandfathered in. The denial of C.O.was correct, and the ZBA should also deny the application for a Special Exception. The regs do not allow the Special Exception to be granted.

    However, since tonight’s meeting was cancelled (seemingly as a result of Firetree’s last minute maneuvering), no one knows when the ZBA will reconvene to vote on both the request for appeal and the request for Special Exception.

    Maybe Nancy can look into the “whys” of why Firetree pulled the plug tonight.

  5. Debora Goldstein

    ZBA cancelation notice said there was no quorum.

  6. Donna

    Nancy posted about this in another article. “No quorum” isn’t a satisfactory explanation for a board who set the date themselves two weeks ago. They had a quorum and at least one or two alternates when they scheduled the continuance. Why at the 11th hour did someone recuse himself? What motivated this recusal and why didn’t it come days earlier? This is why I suspect Firetree’s involvement in pressuring someone to step aside. Given the late-delivered letter in front of the first ZBA hearing, why wouldn’t Firetree pull a stunt like this again?

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