Responding to concerns voiced by neighbors, town officials said this week that no special or health permit is required for a single-family home in northern New Canaan to be used as a residence for men recovering from addiction.
After consulting with legal counsel as well as New Canaan’s chief building official and health director, the town planner said in a memo issued Wednesday that a “sober house” at an upper West Road home “is a permitted use and may operate at that location.”
A two-year lease has been signed on behalf of a group called The Lighthouse, effective this month, to operate out of an 8,000-square-foot home that sits on more than four acres, officials said.
According to its website, The Lighthouse “is a premier residential facility for male executives and professionals who are transitioning from addiction treatment into a life of sober living.” It’s not an addiction treatment or rehab center, according to its brochure, and residents must be “completely detoxed and medically cleared by a doctor” to live in a Lighthouse residence, and typically stay 90 days, the website said. According to its brochure, eight men may live in a sober house at a given time.
It isn’t clear whether The Lighthouse is a for-profit or nonprofit agency, or whether it operates as part of a larger organization. There’s no record of a charitable organization in Connecticut under that name in the IRS online database. The Lighthouse doesn’t accept insurance, the website says. A representative from The Lighthouse was not immediately available for comment.
According to correspondence obtained by NewCanaanite.com following a formal request, neighbors have contacted the town with concerns about the real estate valuation, intensity of use at the single-family home, operation of a business there and—citing one section of the Lighthouse website that says “trained recovery experts are adept at handling the most volatile of situations”—safety.
One letter-writer said the home in question—purchased for $1,125,000 in 1998, according to tax records—is being leased for $14,000 per month.
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.”
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.”