Though they had appeared close to reaching an agreement, the operators of a sober house on West Road home and a neighbor appealing the town’s decision to allow it have failed to reach an accord, representatives said during a public hearing last week.
Now, the question of whether the sober house may continue to operate—or, more likely, under exactly what conditions it will continue—is entirely in the hands of town officials who heard attorneys from both sides make their cases at a June 5 meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
During an unusual ZBA hearing that featured spirited interruptions and apologies, appellant Thom Harrow told board members that the owners of The Lighthouse proposed a series of conditions under which they agreed to run a sober house living facility for men at 909 West Road.
According to Harrow, just one point of disagreement remained at the time the ZBA hearing opened—a question of whether six or eight clients would be allowed in the 8,000-square-foot home at one time. Harrow, Lighthouse officials and various attorneys took a break following an initial part of the hearing—ostensibly to sort out that final matter.
In the end, the two parties couldn’t reach an accord. They also could not agree on just how or why that happened.
Both sides appeared to agree that a number of conditions had been proposed and that each party weighed in on them.
“We submitted a document, they marked it up,” Harrow said during the hearing, held at Town Hall. “There were let’s say 25 changes, we agreed to 24 of them. We just agreed to the 25th just now but apparently that’s not good enough, so they are not prepared to sign the document which they gave us back with comments, all of which we agreed to on Friday.”
He added: “My obvious reason for telling you this is to indicate that we feel that we have dealt in very good faith. I managed the process of having this document done before this meeting, because I knew we didn’t have another meeting, so I am obviously very disappointed. That is all I had to say.”
Darien attorney Robert Maslan, representing The Lighthouse, said rose in objection to Harrow’s exposing a working settlement agreement in public.
“I object to this,” Maslan said as Harrow started to tell the ZBA his version of negotiations. “I really don’t mean to be rude. But this is a confidential document—it was by agreement that we would keep all these discussions confidential until such time as there is an agreement. This is completely inappropriate.”
He added: “There was an agreement at the beginning and as with any settlement discussion, they are done between private parties privately. We disagree with Mr. Harrow’s characterization of how the process went and the number of items on the draft documents, how much there is agreement, which ones were agreed [to]. I mean, this is trying to negotiate something in public but it doesn’t belong in public. It doesn’t belong in newspapers. I’m sure we can agree to that. It is completely inappropriate for Mr. Harrow to stand here and say, ‘We had an agreement here,’ and try to make us look like the bad guy—that is not case. The answer is: There is no agreement and that’s all you should really consider.”
The hearing, now closed, follows five months of discussion and debate regarding the sober house, a closely followed matter that many in town have seen as precedent-setting for large homes whose owners may seek a revenue stream through renting.
The decision does not affect a lawsuit that Harrow filed separately in state Superior Court, seeking a temporary injunction that would have halted the sober house’s operation.
ZBA member John Mahoney said that since the draft settlement agreement now is off the table, board members must make a decision regarding Harrow’s appeal based on the public record, “which may or may not be to the liking of either side.”
“I guess I am frustrated because I would have preferred to have a decision that is more in keeping with the desires of both parties, as it sounds like progress had been made since the last meeting,” he said. “But what we are left with is ignoring that progress. It has been for naught.”
The ZBA is being advised in the matter by land use attorney Patricia Sullivan of Bridgeport-based Cohen and Wolf.
She served as an interpreter and moderator at several moments during the hearing, as Harrow’s attorney— Joel Green of Bridgeport-based Bridgeport-based Green & Gross PC made his arguments to the ZBA.
The hearing itself opened in much the same way as the last one finished: with a series of attorneys discussing rather specific, if not obscure, points of law and procedure.
Green argued that the town planner is not empowered in his position to make the type of decision he did with respect to the sober house. Maslan was arguing back against that point—specifying that the town planner also acts as the senior zoning enforcement officer, and as such as the authority to make zoning decisions—when Harrow himself interjected from the audience area.
“I’m sorry. I’d like to make a comment since I am the appellant,” Harrow said.
When ZBA members said that he must wait until it’s his turn to speak, Harrow answered: “No no no. Let me finish. I don’t care. Are you saying that I do not have the right to speak here?”
When a ZBA member said that Harrow had a lawyer to speak on his behalf, he answered: “Fine. I just fired my lawyer. Here’s my speech. This is BS, man.”
The attorneys conferred and Green eventually emerged, saying “First of all, Mr. Harrow is not a member of the public. He is appealing party, so he should have the opportunity to speak within my presentation as lawyer in this appeal.”
ZBA member Luke Tashjian told Green: “You should start by apologizing for your client.”
Green answered, “I think that point is well taken and I think that Mr. Harrow joins me in that, but I know he is very frustrated.”
Cooler heads prevailed, and the ZBA ultimately agreed to make its decision at a future date.
The ZBA already held one emotionally charged public hearing on an appeal brought by Harrow, who is objecting to a decision by the town that The Lighthouse needs no special or health permit—as otherwise required by the New Canaan Zoning Regulations—to operate the sober house in a residential zone.
After the first hearing, the ZBA decided to postpone its decision on the appeal until after getting advice from additional legal counsel. (Town Attorney Ira Bloom has said that federal laws governing fair housing and those with disabilities dictate that New Canaan cannot require The Lighthouse to apply for a permit to set up shop.) The town hired a Bridgeport-based attorney with wide experience in land use to advise the ZBA.
While all that was happening, officials with The Lighthouse proposed a set of conditions regarding those who will staff and operate the facility, as well as those who will live there as clients.
The conditions—some of which reflect bills scheduled to go before the state legislature—include that staff at The Lighthouse-operated home on West Road will provide the town with contact information for an on-site point person, will be trained in administering the life-saving drug Narcan, which is to be kept on premises, and will themselves be recovering addicts with five or more years’ experience supporting those with substance abuse disorders.
Further, those with active arrest warrants or who are registered as sex offenders will not be permitted to participate in the non-medical sober living program, and residents at The Lighthouse home will be limited to eight total. Under the proposed agreement, The Lighthouse would create and maintain incident reports tracking “serious injuries” to residents or staff, criminal activity on the property, arrests of anyone there and “property damage that would make the house uninhabitable.”
It also includes a proposed “Resident Agreement” that would require Lighthouse clients in the home to submit to random drug and alcohol tests (evicted for failing or threatening or committing violence), request 24 hours in advance permission to have a visitor and participate in “self-directed recovery program activities.”
In the end, lawyers for both sides submitted sets of conditions and Sullivan was tasked with studying the documents to advise ZBA members on the differences between them.
Sullivan had supplied the ZBA with information on federal law regarding fair and accessible housing. Asked whether the zoning board’s deliberations should include thoughts on future litigation on its decision, she said: “Your best defense to litigation is making a good decision.”