Dozens in Waterford oppose sober living site

Waterford - During a three-hour continued public hearing Thursday, residents again voiced their opposition to a proposed Rope Ferry Road sober living facility for 144 adult men.

The hearing was closed Thursday, and the Zoning Board of Appeals is expected to vote March 7 on an application by Stonington Behavioral Health Inc. to change the use of a former convalescent home at 171 Rope Ferry Road.

William Aniskovich, CEO of Stonington Behavioral Health - which operates substance-abuse facilities throughout the region under the name Stonington Institute - said he believes there isn't a sober living facility of this size anywhere else in the country.

"We could be pioneers," ZBA Chairman E. Peter Bendfeldt said.

Citing economic hardship and a moratorium on nursing homes throughout the state, Stonington Behavioral Health is seeking a use variance change for the former convalescent home. The property, despite marketing efforts for the past two years, has remained unsold.

Emotions ran high during the public hearing, as nearly all of the 50 residents in attendance spoke against the application.

Resident John Fratus said he lives four houses down from the proposed facility.

"I have an 8-year-old that boards the bus every day at the same time the buses would pick up the Stonington Institute clients," he said. "It scares the heck out of my wife and I. I hope everyone looks at their conscience when you vote."

One resident voiced his opposition by holding up copies of newspapers with bold headlines on the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, saying that the facility would bring "undesirables" and "safety concerns" to the neighborhood.

Lifelong town resident Jennifer Cimmino, who as a special education teacher is trained in verbal and physical techniques to restrain out-of-control students to prevent them from leaving the building, said she was concerned that Stonington Institute employees are only allowed to use verbal restraints to prevent those living in the facility from leaving.

Thomas Londregan, attorney for Stonington Behavioral Health, urged ZBA members to put aside their emotions and focus on the facts.

"This is not a detox unit. This is a sober house. ... We're proposing a supportive living environment for people living with an addiction," Londregan said. "What was there was a supportive living environment for people with medical needs."

He said residents would not be allowed to have personal vehicles or cellphones. All transportation to and from the clinics would be in vans, which would be parked off-site when not in use. Residents would attend off-site clinic programs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Among the facts, Londregan said, are also federal laws.

The Americans with Disabilities and Fair Housing acts allow individuals access to fair opportunities to live in supported housing environments in residential zones. The laws do not place a number on what constitutes a family or what constitutes a home, he said.

Aniskovich said he plans to divide the 33,800-square-foot convalescent home into pods, so the men in the home can continue the group living environment they've gotten used to in other Stonington Institute facilities.

Going forward, Aniskovich said he would be "more than willing" to work with the town on adjusting the number of beds in the facility.

j.hanckel@theday.com

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