Letter: ‘Sober House’ Issue Needs Civil Dialogue, not Diatribes

Dear Editor:

One’s opinion is largely shaped by one’s perspective.

Many of the objections I’ve read recently in regards to The Lighthouse’s opening of a ‘sober house’ on West Road come from the perspective of homeowners and parents. They cite neighborhood property devaluing and safety concerns as reasons to why the commercial operation and its cause should not be able to take place there.

As a longtime resident of New Canaan (albeit a former one), I know what the price ranges of houses on West Road are. And any family who decides to make their home there works very hard to do so—and with that should come a sense of security.

I just turned 26. I am not yet a homeowner or a parent. At this point my parents, in their mid-60s, have not yet owned a home. So, this perspective is not one I can speak from—yet I hear your concern.

I write this letter from the perspective of one who, at 26, has already lost three classmates and friends from NCHS’s Class of 2009 due to the powers of addiction—a perspective I’ve yet to read from anyone who has voiced disapproval of this operation.

In January of 2016 I attended a panel at Town Hall titled ‘Athlete, Merit Scholar, Suburban Junkie: Protecting our Kids from the Opioid Epidemic’ which had six experts, including two recovering addicts. One of those in recovery is a friend and classmate of mine.

That night I, along with the couple hundred others who filled that Town Hall meeting room to capacity, heard my friend’s detailed story about how they battled depression, anxiety and addiction—including attempting suicide their sophomore year of high school.

I’m a man who’s invested in wanting everyone to be happy, especially those I’ve met and care about. At the same time, being a bit timid and reserved—and especially so in high school—I don’t make it my business to get deep into other people’s personal business or issues without their consent. So much of what I heard from my friend that night was news to me.

And that sophomore year of high school I sat across from them in biology class. We’re exceptionally grateful that they’re still with us today. But while hearing their story I couldn’t help but think, “What if I did more to help then?”.

So, to anyone who is of the mindset “not my town” in regards to New Canaan not having those affected by addiction—you’re sorely mistaken. And you might as well be saying “not my problem.”

We as a nation have seemingly lost the ability to listen and respect the opinions that are different from ours. That if we passionately believe in one thing we’re A) entirely correct; and B) anyone who believes something different is entirely off-base.

We must be better than that.

Yes, my family no longer lives in New Canaan. But we did for 20 years—and a Sauerhoff lived in New Canaan for 49 consecutive (1966-2015). So anything New Canaan related, I try my absolute best to think with the interest of the town in mind. And getting behind an effort to help those in recovery, in my mind, is something worth doing.

I have no affiliation with the Lighthouse nor have I made any contact with its founders Trey Laird and Tony Kiniry. All who I’ve read concerns and objections from are in the same boat.

Yet several of those men and women, seemingly, had zero reservations about throwing out defamatory remarks intent on attacking the character of the two men—remarks that in my research are unsubstantiated. That says something about their character, doesn’t it?

Mr. Laird and Mr. Kiniry are both recovering addicts, sober for years, if not decades, now. I read Mr. Kiniry’s letter. How anyone can read that and combine it with the histories of these men and question their motives is beyond me.

Is a sober house an ideal solution? Perhaps not. In an ideal world, people would not profit from those in recovery. I truly wish it did not cost such a price to help people heal themselves. And I’d welcome legislation from the state as long as it proves beneficial to any potential residents of current and future sober homes.

But a sober house is a real solution. And that’s with taking into consideration those across the country, both in other states and ours, that have failed—the Lighthouse on Mansfield Avenue in Darien is not one of them, though. And as reported in The Darien News earlier this month, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, “Heard after the fact about the sober living facility, but has not received any complaints from neighbors or residents about its activities.”

As for the way Mr. Laird and Mr. Kiniry went about leasing the place goes, being upfront about their intentions with the owner of the house but not broadcasting it to the town. Without talking to them personally, in addition to wanting to maintain privacy, I’d attribute it to the stigma that’s associated with addiction. Evidenced by the outrage of neighbors and residents, if they can help it, many people just don’t want to live next to, or in the vicinity of, those struggling with addiction because they (likely) stereotype that all addicts are dangerous.

But folks, there’s a distinction between active addicts and those in recovery.

My family, in the mid-2000’s, did live next-door to a man who possessed and dealt drugs. Yes, in New Canaan; a wall away. As in the walls inside our condo were all that separated us from him. We could smell it when he’d smoke pot and our kitchen sink once backed up because of him putting who-knows-what drug down the drain. He was eventually arrested.

That’s something to be concerned about because that man was an active addict.

Condos can (and this particular one did) share things like driveways, yards and amenities such as washers and dryers. So my family, and others, were sharing all of these with a drug dealer. That’s something I’d hope would cause a similar outrageous reaction as those in opposition to this sober house have displayed—yet I genuinely wonder if many residents who lived in New Canaan at the time were even aware.

The difference, in my mind, between that man and any man who chooses to live at 909 West Road in the coming months (and potentially years) is that these men have chosen to get themselves better. They are recovering addicts—ones not currently using or abusing the substances that got them into treatment in the first place. And as they go on their road of recovery, they do not plan to.

There’s a thought out there that if the town lets this operation proceed that more like it will follow suit and swallow up all of town’s available homes. And as one resident recently put it, “Do we want New Canaan to become known as a ‘rehab’ community for recovering alcohol and substance abuse patients?”

Condescend much?

Folks, this is not a college fraternity house. This specific operation serves prosperous, professional men in their 30’s. Prosperous, professional men who have made mistakes, no question. But men who have likely already paid an exorbitant price for doing so. How much more punishment do they need to endure?

This letter began with me mentioning perspectives and the one I’m coming from. It’s one largely influenced by the deaths of three classmates and friends as a result of drug overdoses. Each of these people contributed at least one, if not dozens, of positive, happy memories for me growing up. I, and many others, know they were great people during their time in this life.

In October 2013, 13.5 months prior to my high school class’ five-year reunion, the first one happened—22 years old. Then in July 2015, the next one—24. And most recently, this past September—at the age of 25. Three people taken from this world long before their time should’ve been up.

I was unable to attend the wake for the first person in 2013, but at our class’ five-year reunion, their presence was certainly felt. And since then, two occasions when many in our class have come together has been at Hoyt Funeral Home. Not at all the “reunions” we were hoping for.

So yes, I read and hear the residents’ concerns and objections. But I’m still waiting for one which offers a better solution for New Canaan to help the people who, I feel, are the most crucial in this situation—those in recovery.

Recovery is an ever-winding road. One with the chance for several bumps along the way. Our great town should be helping pave the road as smooth as possible, not contributing the bumps themselves.

Substance use and abuse is a conversation we all need to have with one another. In large part because, if it develops, it tends to start in adolescence and the health, safety and well-being of our children is of prominent importance to all of us—whether we’re parents or not. It’s an ongoing conversation. One the town has already gotten started thanks to organizing meetings and panels such as the one I referenced earlier and the one that took place Wednesday evening.

To those detractors out there, were you at either or both of those? How about any others? I hope so. Because if not, you’re not doing your part in this conversation. And deciding not to participate does this town no good.

I’ve written about and covered the achievements of several NCHS athletic teams and their many student-athletes for the past couple years now; I’ve spoken at the high school’s Scholarship Drive assembly in an effort to drum up both interest and fundraising; and in light of the most recent death of a classmate and friend of mine, went to visit with an NCHS assistant principal to make sure the school is doing all it can in educating its student body about the risks of alcohol and drug use/abuse.

I care for and highly regard the health, safety and well-being of your children and families. And I also care for and highly regard the health, safety and well-being of those who are in recovery.

So, as you prepare your proverbial bullets to fire in opposition of this sober house at any upcoming hearing(s) and/or town meeting(s), I’ll acknowledge that you have a right to voice your opinion on this matter.

But in doing so, I urge you to also bring along with you at least a few points that detail what better alternatives are out there for New Canaan to address the needs of those in recovery.

“Not my problem,” you say? You’re right, it does not fall squarely on your shoulders. It’s on all of ours too.

Thank you for your time and I send well wishes to all those involved.

Sincerely,

Jes Sauerhoff

2 thoughts on “Letter: ‘Sober House’ Issue Needs Civil Dialogue, not Diatribes

  1. Very well written perspective on a pervasive problem in this town that too often goes unmentioned. Unfortunately, this is still a moral argument that you’re making, and I think in the end this issue will be decided on legal merits rather than moral.

  2. Jes, as someone who has been extensively involved in this issue, I appreciate you taking the time to express this view and understand the issues you have experienced and their effects on you. I have four children and stepchildren. My own children are your age plus or minus a few years, and grew up here in New Canaan. They have had the same stories you have.

    But I think you miss a few important points. Beside the appropriate concern we have for property values extending from the high density use proposed here, we are also offended by the manner in which it was handled both by the Lighthouse and the Town. The failure to approach the Town in any way about permitting or zoning issues was not an oversight. It is patently obvious that the Lighthouse use violates zoning rules, as well as any number of other safety rules. To have not gone to the Town on this use can really have only one basis: to avoid having to deal with the issues.

    The Lighthouse also failed to inform anyone in the community about its plans, despite the fact that the operators have many friends here in town, including neighbors next door to or in the vicinity of the project.

    The organizers have made the arrogant comment here and in other Town publications that “this isn’t our first rodeo.” In this context the failure to ask the Town for a variance or special use permit can only come from a conscious effort to avoid the issue.

    Let’s talk about why we oppose this. We have no objection to recovering addicts of any kind living in our midst. The fact is that most of us have had exposure to this problem, as you point out, either within our direct family or close friends. What we do object to is the intensity of use intended here in a residential community. Lets not forget that say 8 residents staying for an average of 90 days, means a home with 32 people transiting through in a year. That’s a lot of people you don’t know moving in and out of the “house next door.” By any rational analysis its also not a family as is defined in New Canaan zoning, and its not a family from any rational viewpoint. You can say people need help in treating their addictions, which is true, but its pretty hard to say that having that many people moving into and out of the house next door doesn’t present problems of its own to us.

    To your question about suggestions for alternative facilities, we have Silver Hill Hospital here, which charges less, and has the facilities or the room for this kind of development. Yes, that’s someone else’s NIMBY issue, but one can at least say that Silver Hill has been here a long time and predates probably a large majority of the nearby residents. And if Silver Hill doesn’t fill the bill, there are any number of structures in commercial zones of Town that could accommodate this number of people without the intrusion of a high intensity use in a residential area. Not to mention making it easier for the residents to get around and to blend into the community, one of the tenets of the sober house movement.

    And finally, I have no discomfort with saying I care about property values. I’m the guy who lives next door to 909 West Road. I’ve lived here since before 909 West was even built. I’ve enjoyed our home for 15 years. But its my job as a father and husband to protect the most important asset my family has. And there is no way I’m going to be convinced that when the time comes to sell this house, the presence of a high intensity, unregulated use next door will diminish the value of the house if not cause it to be illiquid.

    Its easy to conjecture that a loss in property value is a boogie man raised by greedy and uncaring neighbors– in fact the promoters of the Lighthouse, as well as many supporters who don’t live near here, have made this claim. But if you live next door, and if you have health issues or have reached the point where you can retire now or in the near future, taking a hit or, worse, being unable to sell your house, can pretty much kill any plans you have. And many of us are in that position, with plans that aren’t way in the future, but are right now problems that we have to evaluate.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t need to be reminded or convinced about the extent of drug and alcohol addiction today. A positive, effective approach to the problem is really needed. But that doesn’t mean it has to be at the very real expense of people who have been randomly affected by the Lighthouse.

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