Next-Door Neighbor Files Formal Appeal of Town’s Decision That ‘Sober House’ Is Allowed


Citing the definition of ‘family’ in the New Canaan Zoning Regulations, a next-door neighbor of the West Road home to be operated as a “sober house” has appealed the town planner’s finding that the property can be used as such in a residential zone.

Describing the four-acre zone as “an area zoned for single-family homes” and noting that a sober house’s residents are not related to each other and include support staff, the appeal from Thom Harrow of West Road said the proposed use “is inconsistent with the definition of a family as set out in the Town Zoning Regulations, inasmuch as the proposed use provides housing for as many as eight people and related staff.”

“Pursuant to General Statutes Sect 8-7, this is an appeal from an order of a planning & zoning official which does not prohibit further construction or expansion of a use, and as such, the filing of this appeal stays the order and [The] Lighthouse is not permitted to occupy or use” the West Road home “for the stated purpose until this board resolves the appeal.”

The Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled to meet Monday. It isn’t clear whether the appeal, received by the town Jan. 23, was filed in time to make that meeting’s agenda.

Under the regulations (see page 18 here), ‘family’ is defined as “any number of individuals related by blood, legal adoption or marriage and up to two additional unrelated individuals living and cooking together on the premises as a single housekeeping unit, as distinguished from a group occupying a boarding or rooming house or hotel.”

Since the town planner, on advice from the town attorney, asserted that the sober house is a permitted use at the West Road address, neighbors have spoken out against that finding specifically and more generally about a for-profit business such as The Lighthouse being allowed to operate unchecked and without a public hearing or permit in a residential zone. The sober house is to serve as a post-rehabilitation residence for about six men recovering from addiction, each of whom would stay approximately one to three months, according to the company’s website.

According to a Jan. 13 memo from Town Attorney Ira Bloom, 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.”

Under the federal Fair Housing Act, it’s unlawful to discriminate to a renter based on a handicap. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that no qualified person with a disability be denied the benefits of services or programs or subject to discrimination by a public entity. And state law 8-3e says that no zoning regulation may treat differently from any single-family residence “any community residence that houses six or fewer persons receiving mental health or addiction services and necessary staff persons” who are licensed.

“In general, the federal laws prohibit discrimination by public entities (including town governments) against handicapped or disabled persons,” Bloom said in his memo.

“The ‘protected persons’ include, as examples, individuals with physical or mental impairments and recovering substance abusers. The laws prohibit intentional discrimination, but, more importantly for our purposes, they also prohibit facially neutral policies which have discriminatory effect when actually applied—the ‘disparate impact’ theory. Such policies may have such an effect if they cause a significantly adverse or disproportionate impact on a particular group. The laws also require the public entity, or town government in our case, to make a ‘reasonable accommodation’ to assist the group. In plain language terms, local zoning regulations which impose restrictive terms on ‘group homes’ may not apply in a particular situation, since they are superseded by these other laws. Municipalities are required to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ in their various regulations and rules to provide qualified disabled individuals with equal housing opportunities.”

Harrow in his appeal letter said the owner of the home next door—an 8,000-square-foot house that sits on more than four acres—“made no communication to any neighbors, including me, of the proposed use of the property.”

Officials at The Lighthouse said in a letter submitted to that they regret a lapse in communication.

According to the state Office of Legislative Research, no one with an outstanding criminal warrant is permitted to live in a sober house.

Though local governments “often try to restrict the establishment or operation of sober houses through zoning and housing codes,” the federal law “limits their ability to do so,” the state agency said in a 2009 research report.

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.”

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