‘We Want To Have Some Oversight’: State Legislators Take Up Proposed Bills Regulating Sober Houses

State lawmakers are developing a series of bills that advocates say are designed to regulate “sober houses,” the introduction of which in New Canaan has sparked wide community discussion as well as neighborhood opposition.

Referred to the Connecticut General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Public Health, one proposed bill calls for an amendment to state law that would require new sober houses “to register with the municipality in which they are located and become certified by their municipal health authority or district department of health prior to operation and in order to be eligible to receive state funding.”

The same “Act Concerning Sober Living Homes” also would require existing facilities to register and obtain certification locally in order to receive state funds.

That proposed state law and others seeking to regulate sober houses are to get hearings in the Public Health Committee and from there could go to both houses of the legislature and, with support, to the governor. They could become law at the end of the session in early June if not sooner, according to state Rep. Michelle Cook (D-65th) of Torrington, who sits on the committee and proposed another bill.

Under Cook’s bill, sober houses would be required to register as businesses in the towns in which they’re located as well as with the state Department of Public Health, and to have Naloxone or “Narcan”—a life-saving drug in cases of opioid overdose (such as in New Canaan recently)—on premises, with tenants trained in its administration, if anyone in the facility has a history of opioid addiction.

Cook said her town of about 36,000 residents has seen “a rapid rise” in sober houses in the past few years, so that there are upward of 25 in Torrington now. The legislator has been working with the mayor for three or four years “to do something legal and not violating rights, but also protecting space,” she said.

Already in 2017, multiple people have died in sober houses, Cook said, and “there has been an outcry.”

“We have been working on a way to get around ADA violations while still finding a clean living environment that is not represented as something else,” she told NewCanaanite.com.

Many of the sober houses in Torrington take no state money, Cook said.

“They’re not regulated and not registered as a business, so they’re able to put five, six, seven people in a house which legally should have only four,” she said.

Cook added: “We’re not trying to rain on anybody’s parade as a business, but we want to have some oversight.”

A sober house now operating in northern New Canaan has drawn close scrutiny since the town attorney advised Planning & Zoning officials that no local ordinance could trump federal and state laws that allow the operation of sober homes as-of-right. Specifically, the town attorney in a memo to the town planner cited the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act in determining that the law of group homes—residences where unrelated people who have various qualified disabilities or handicaps reside—“is governed by two federal laws and one state law” that “take priority over local regulations.”

With that legal advice, the town planner then responded to inquiries from some neighbors that no special or health permit is required in order to operate a sober home on upper West Road. A two-year lease has been signed on behalf of a business called The Lighthouse, effective last month, to operate out of an 8,000-square-foot home that sits on more than four acres there, officials said.

Citing the definition of ‘family’ in the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, one neighbor is appealing the town planner’s finding, and that is expected to come before the Zoning Board of Appeals next month. Those opposed to the sober house’s non-permitted establishment in a residential zone also have argued that it operates as a money-making business and should be required to undergo permitting as other such ventures would.

It isn’t clear just how the proposed state laws—they can be found on this page, searching for the word ‘sober’—would affect an existing sober house in New Canaan, though if passed, it appears that new facilities would need certification from a local health official in order to operate.

The process described in the proposed bills appears to be more in line with what already is on the books locally in New Canaan.

New Canaan’s Town Code defines a ‘Rooming House’ this way: “Any building or portion thereof used or occupied by three or more boarders or roomers as defined in the New Canaan Zoning Regulations and shall include hotels, motels and lodging houses.”

Under Section 186-6 of the Town Code: “No owner shall lease or rent rooming house units unless he holds a rooming house permit issued by the Director of Health or the specific rooming house in which the rooming house units are located.”

Asked about the strength of the proposed laws to compel sober house operators to apply for permission from a local municipality in order to run their businesses, Cook said: “I think it’s a start.”

“If we register them as a sober home not only do people in the community recognize that it’s a sober home there but also the health department and public safety agencies are noticed. You can have the fire marshal in to check smoke detectors and fire extinguishers and they need to abide by the code of the community.”

Tony Kiniry, one founder of The Lighthouse, which for about one year has operated a sober house in Darien, said when asked for his thoughts on the proposed legislation: “I think it would be beneficial to have some oversight and accountability for people that are operating sober houses.”

“If there is collaboration where people in government and those operating things figure out what is workable and does not infringe upon the rights of people to secure housing—they should not be denied housing because of their disability—but if there is something that ensures they are being cared for properly and the law is being applied, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

Cook said the health and safety of those seeking to continue recovery in sober houses is a priority.

“When people are trying to get on the road to recovery, they not only need to have themselves on the right path but the people around you are important,” she said. “We have found that without the right people around you or not having support systems around you in the same situations, these people fall, they succumb to addiction and we are trying to prevent any more loss of life, quite frankly.”

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