Silvermine Road residents on Tuesday night voiced concerns to members of the Planning & Zoning Commission about a neighbor’s application to convert their garage into a home office and medical examination area.
Granting Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann, a pediatrician, a Major Home Occupation permit to allow for a small staff to work out of the office and see additional patients would bring unwanted traffic to a narrow shared driveway and create a safety hazard for the many children who live in the area and play outside, according to several parents who addressed P&Z during its regular meeting.
There are already cars that go up the driveway and “occasionally make a wrong turn into our house which is to be expected,” said Dan Oliver, who shares a driveway with the Berchelmanns.
“It happens occasionally, and obviously we are very concerned about increased traffic and increased wrong turns into our area,” he said. “And once you come into our house, you can’t really turn around unless you go past our house, up into our larger area to turn around. So it’s not easy to back up. So it really would be a major imposition, not just our house but the shared driveway goes right past two other houses off Silvermine Road. And both of those neighbors are very concerned about the noise, the loss of privacy, the density. They have children, as well, as pets, so obviously the prospect of increased traffic is very concerning. And also they’ve expressed to me that people already turn around in their driveway. In fact, the shared driveway is—I think, as most are—is very narrow, and people miss it, including my parents, for example, when they come to visit and they turn around in someone else’s driveway.”
Oliver addressed P&Z regarding the Berchelmann’s application for a Special Permit that would see the two-car garage at 711 Silvermine Road converted into a “telehealth business office” operated by the 501c3 organization MyCatholicDoctor. There, a part-time nonclinical administrator would work on weekdays, and two interns would also work on a part-time basis, according to Greg Berchelmann.
The organization “uses telehealth to increase access to Catholic healthcare,” he told P&Z.
“And we would also like to allow for Kathleen, my wife, to periodically see patients from the local community,” he said. “By ‘periodically’ we mean an estimated real average of maybe zero to two patient cars per week.”
The permit would be limited in that it would not follow a property transfer, should the Berchelmanns sell their home in the two-acre zone, while business-related traffic would not exceed more than three daily visits by staff, and there would be a monthly average of five business-related cars per week for patients, Greg Berchelmann said.
There would be no signage or new lighting, the footprint of the house would not change and “we are not opening a public clinic,” he said. Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann is a Stamford Hospital pediatrician and does mostly administrative work on behalf of with MyCatholicDoctor on a volunteer, unpaid basis, according to the applicant.
Commissioners asked how the proposed traffic limitations would be enforced (through scheduling patients), how often same-day appointments are made (infrequently, most are made with 24 hours-plus notice), what is the nature of appointments (almost all COVID-19 testing), how much parking is on the site now (six cars can be accommodated easily), what the remodel involves (converting most of the garage to office space with a small telehealth studio), whether new plumbing would need to be installed as part of the remodel (it’s already in place in an adjacent room), whether the New Canaan Health Department has reviewed plans (not yet, that’s a future step), whether the plans are ADA-compliant (the contractor is aware of that need), whether neighbors are aware of the plans (they’ve been notified), whether the property is on a shared driveway (yes) and whether there have been conversations with neighbors about bringing more traffic to the house (yes).
P&Z members also noted that fire marshal sign-off would be required for the home office and that the rules governing operation of a medical office in some ways drive its design.
“Personally I think you have a lot more homework to do on this before we can reasonably address whether this is a viable for a Special Permit here,” Commissioner Dan Radman said. “It seems like there are a lot of unanswered questions as to the usage relative to Health Department requirements and handicapped accessibility that you really haven’t vetted yet.”
Ultimately P&Z put off a decision on the application until at least its May meeting.
Oliver said that the neighborhood of Silvermine Road “is really not suitable for this kind of activity.”
“It’s a residential area, and to increase the traffic and the density would radically change the character and would, in effect, the safety. We also, in terms of the permit we really don’t understand the nature of it.”
Though the Berchelmann’s application says the change in use at the house is needed because the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the needed for in-person testing for the virus, the nature of telehealth itself is that it’s remote, Oliver said.
Another neighbor on the driveway, Scott Roen, said that he had retained an attorney regarding the Berchelmann’s application but “we don’t want to use them.”
“We don’t want to move forward,” he said. “But we do want to make sure that this gets resolved.”
Roen said that it appeared the Berchelmanns were “trying to build a business” and that filings online show they’re “raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to grow a practice.”
“These may be unrelated, I’m not sure, but it just gives me pause for what other things might come over time if we open this up like this,” he said.
Roen added, “Obviously having people who are sick come into our driveway at a time like this is troubling for us.”
The neighbors suggested that the organization find a commercial space in the business district.
But that’s not possible because the organization doesn’t have the funding for it, Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann said.
“We are not building a huge organization in our home,” she said. “We’re a small organization.”
From the beginning, the Berchelmanns’ intention has been to be totally honest and transparent with neighbors about their plans “and I’m surprised by the response,” she said.
“This is the first we’ve heard any of these concerns from the neighborhood,” Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann said. “It’s really our intention to work with the community and we hope that we are approachable. We’ve made ourselves very approachable.”
P&Z Chair John Goodwin in recommending that the appointed body keep the application open noted that “I can’t promise to close this and we deny it, which seems to be a neighbor’s request.” He suggested that the Berchelmanns continue meeting with neighbors to find an agreeable solution.