Wrong use for former nursing home

By every measure a proposal by Stonington Behavioral Health Inc. to convert a former convalescent home in Waterford into a 144-bed facility for men undergoing treatment for addiction makes no sense, except when it comes to producing more corporate profit. Universal Health Services, a Fortune 500 company with annual revenues exceeding $7.5 billion, owns Stonington Behavioral Health.

Squeezing that many men with the same serious problems to deal with into a nearly 50-year-old former nursing home, considered cramped and outdated when it closed in 2009, seems an invitation for failure and trouble. Additionally, the application filed with the Zoning Board of Appeals falls far short of meeting the criteria for the "use variance" that the applicant needs to open the facility.

The variance is necessary because a proposed substance abuse facility is not permitted by town zoning rules in the otherwise residential neighborhood. The former Haven Health Center is located on a 2.2-acre property at the corner of Spithead and Rope Ferry Roads, across from the St. Paul in Chains Catholic Church. Neighbors have a reason to be concerned.

In seeking the variance, the applicant contends: "The use proposed is similar to the previous nursing home use, but less intense "

Similar, perhaps, but describing it as less intense is a stretch. The nursing home served largely elderly patients receiving long-term care. Visitors and workers would come and go, and ambulances provide frequent transportation and emergency assistance. But a nursing home is fundamentally a quiet neighbor.

Under the proposed reuse plan, up to two men would be staying in each of the 72 rooms in the former convalescent home, all actively receiving outpatient services for substance abuse issues. Average stay would be 30 days, assuring a constant turnover. Six days a week vans would transport men to treatment programs, returning them late afternoons for the rest of the night. Sunday would be visitation day.

This does not strike us as less intense.

The applicants face a three-prong test for obtaining the desired use variance from the ZBA. They appear to fail all three.

To qualify for the variance there can be no other reasonable use for the property permitted by zoning. The applicant points to the state moratorium on new nursing homes beds, saying it has led to the inability to sell the facility - providing the required "hardship" needed to get a zoning variance - and leaving the substance-abuse housing as the only reasonable alternative.

The problem for the applicant is that a medical clinic, to name one thing, could be located there under zoning rules, or the owner could raze the existing building and create two residential building lots. The fact that these options are not as attractive financially does not constitute a hardship.

The applicant also has to show that the variance sought is the minimum necessary to allow a reasonable use. But in fact there are permitted uses requiring no or minor variances.

Finally, the applicant must demonstrate that the use will not impair the character of the area. We don't see how it can do that. Cram that many men together, all under the stress of recovering from addiction, and there will be problems calling for emergency responses. And these clients are free to walk out; staff personnel cannot force them to stay. In some fashion this facility would impair the character of the area.

Money, not improved services, appears to be the driving motivation. Stonington Behavioral runs 13 halfway "sober" houses in southeastern Connecticut. Opening this facility would allow it to close many, reducing overhead costs.

Suburban towns such as Waterford have to do more to meet the challenge of caring for those trying to recover from substance abuse, and in dealing with other social ills. Those burdens fall disproportionately on the urban centers of New London and Norwich. But this plan is not the answer. In this case the cry "not in my backyard" is appropriate.

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