Waterford - A proposal to allow a housing facility on Rope Ferry Road for 144 men in drug and substance abuse treatment was met Thursday with strong opposition during a Zoning Board of Appeals public hearing.
The hearing was continued until Feb. 7.
The plan, presented by the Stonington Behavioral Health Inc., would take a vacant nursing home at 171 Rope Ferry Road and use the 77-bed facility as room and board for male patients participating in the Stonington Institute's substance abuse programs, which generally run about 30 days, said Thomas Londregan, the organization's attorney.
But several residents, who packed a standing-room-only Town Hall auditorium, spoke and wrote letters to the ZBA to oppose the plan for the 2-acre property, which sits on the corner of Rope Ferry and Spithead roads in a residential neighborhood across the street from St. Paul in Chains Church.
Most cited safety concerns, including a few who said "even one incident" would be too many. One lawyer who spoke on behalf of two Spithead Road residents argued the application to change a zoning variance didn't meet the necessary requirements.
More than 150 people attended the hearing.
No vote was taken Thursday, and the hearing was postponed to Feb. 7 so the Planning and Zoning Commission can submit its report, ZBA chairman E. Peter Bendfeldt said.
Londregan said the building, which has stood vacant for two years since the nursing home closed, would be well used by the organization.
"Anything else would require complete demolition of the property," Londregan said. "Our proposed use uses the same buildings and parking, the use fits the building that's there now, and the use is a reasonable reuse of what's there now."
Stonington Behavioral Health CEO William Aniskovich told the board patients would leave the facility between 7 and 8 a.m. six days a week for treatment at different facilities around southeastern Connecticut.
They would return around 3 or 4 p.m. each day and have Sundays off, he said. Lights out would be 11 p.m., Aniskovich said, and staff would make rounds every 30 minutes.
A ratio of 1 to 10, staff to client, would be in place during the day, meaning approximately 14 staff members to the 144 clients, Aniskovich said. The clients, Aniskovich said, attend the treatment program voluntarily but cannot be held there against their will if they choose to leave.
The organization currently runs 13 sober houses throughout New London County, but would consolidate several of them at the proposed Rope Ferry Road location, he said.
"It would be nice to have it utilized but not at the expense of neighbors and to have their property values decrease as a result of that," said ZBA member Catherine Lynn Newlin, whose comments were met with applause. "That is one of my biggest concerns for this property."
When Bendfeldt asked for public comment in favor of the application, two spoke before the board: John and Kimberly Haugabook, husband and wife who are former clients of Stonington Institute that now work for the organization.
"I want to appeal to your hearts," Kimberly Haugabook said. "People who come through the Institute look like me and look like you. They struggle with disease and addiction. But there is life after addiction."
When the floor was opened to those opposed, hands shot up and a steady stream of people, many direct neighbors of the proposed facility, strode up to address the board.
Chris Bachant said he lives on Spithead Road six houses down from the property. He said a man escaped from a sober house in Niantic several years ago and broke into several homes, including Bachant's own.
"I live right across the street from a nuclear power plant, and that does not bother me," but this proposed facility, a 10-minute walk away, does, added resident Chuck McCarthy.
Rob Taylor, another Spithead Road neighbor, brought statistics of police calls to a Stonington Institute facility in North Stonington, which has about 75 clients. Last year, police responded there 34 times and 41 in 2011, numbers that would surely at least double with the greater number of clients in Waterford, Tayor said.
If a client left the facility in the 30 minutes between staff rounds, Taylor said, they could be "at 100 different residences, athletic fields, Boy Scout camps" and schools.
"This is a public safety issue, nothing more, nothing less," he said.