Saying a planned “sober house” on West Road will devalue their homes and open the door to similar for-profit facilities launching in New Canaan’s residential neighborhoods, more than 20 residents filed a formal letter this week voicing concerns to municipal officials.
Neighbors have retained an attorney and plan to challenge before the Zoning Board of Appeals the town planner’s finding—rooted in advice from the town attorney—that a business called The Lighthouse can operate without a permit as a post-rehab facility for men recovering from addiction.
New Canaanites “should be concerned that these homes have no restrictions as to how they’re operated and are under no legal supervision,” according to the letter. “They are allowed to insert themselves as a business in any residential community. The fact that our town is known for being a child-friendly, family-oriented community has no bearing.”
Town officials have confirmed that The Lighthouse has signed a two-year lease to operate out of an 8,000-square-foot home that sits on more than four acres on upper West Road.
In their letter, the residents voicing concerns about The Lighthouse—most of them live in northwestern New Canaan, including on properties that abut the West Road “sober house”—question the motives of the business’s founders, calling “secretive” for failing to approach neighbors, interested only in profits and recklessly causing “terrible angst.”
On Jan. 18, the town planner after soliciting advice from Town Attorney Ira Bloom notified concerned neighbors that operating a sober house at the West Road home was a “permitted use.” Normally, under the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, a group home could only operate in a residential zone by special permit, and a rooming house would require a permit issued by the town’s health director. However, federal laws limit a local government’s ability to restrict sober houses, officials have said.
One of the West Road home’s neighbors, Thom Harrow, told NewCanaanite.com that he intends to appeal the town planner’s assertion.
One of The Lighthouse’s founders, former New Canaan resident Tony Kiniry, said the program had been seeking a house in town to lease for about two years and ended up finding a residence in Darien first. That location has been operating for more than one year without incident, Kiniry said.
“I totally understand where these people are coming from because I personally live much closer to a sober house, with my 12-year-old son, than any of those people do,” he told NewCanaanite.com. “I personally know all the problems that could or do happen or that you may be fearful will happen. So I understand where they are coming from, I understand the concerns and fears, and all of those things I knew before got involved with this because I didn’t want any of it to happen in New Canaan.”
The Lighthouse purposely chose a home that is in a more remote location in order to ensure privacy for its residents, Kiniry said.
“Secrecy is not what we are about—privacy is,” he said.
Kiniry said that the owners of the West Road home that The Lighthouse is leasing did their due diligence in finding out about the program, including a visit to the existing sober house in Darien.
Those who live in a Lighthouse home are carefully screened, often are high-achieving professionals and “operate as a small family” in the residences, he said.
Kiniry said that as someone who has been living 20 years sober himself and who worships at a church in town, he understands that “there are generous people in New Canaan” and churches that host meetings for people who have been addicted to alcohol or other substances draw large crowds.
He added that the selection of a West Road home that has been on the market for some time and hasn’t sold may have inadvertently “hit on the worst fear of New Canaan, that these big houses will not sell and people will rent them.”
Some Realtors especially have “thrown a couple of wrenches into our plans” as The Lighthouse has searched New Canaan for a sober house location, Kiniry said.
“This [The Lighthouse] has only been in business for over a year but we might want to buy a house, if the opportunity presents itself,” he said.
Kiriny conceded that there are many poorly run sober houses, and added: “Our intention is to be the best operating place that there is, and to operate like a place in New Canaan.”