Waterford sober living site decision postponed

Waterford - The Zoning Board of Appeals postponed a decision Thursday on Stonington Institute's proposal to turn a vacant Rope Ferry Road nursing home into a sober living facility for 144 men.

Board members were asked by town attorney Robert Avena to craft a draft of the reasons why it will choose to either approve or deny the proposal by Stonington Behavioral Health Inc. to change the use of the property at 171 Rope Ferry Road.

The board is scheduled to review the drafts at its April 4 meeting. A decision is expected during that meeting, Avena said.

Residents have opposed the facility since the public hearings on the issues began in January and continued until late last month when the board closed the hearing.

While a majority of residents have said they do not object to the need for shelter for those in the organization's treatment and recovery programs, they are uncomfortable with the large number of men living in one area.

Reviewing exhibits related to the application, Zoning Board Chairman E. Peter Bendfeldt said there are no other commercial enterprises in the area, as it is "99 percent residential."

"If you approve this, and this program moves on, already this would be a rooming house; you're not doing any medical stuff there," Bendfeldt said before the board's vote. "So a sober house and a rooming house are basically the same definition, and if it were to become a rooming house, coming and going as they want with cars and stuff, it'd be a whole different thing. What we decide here has an effect for the future."

According to the organization's application, the residents at the facility would not be able to drive their own cars and they would not receive treatment at the Rope Ferry Road facility. Shuttle buses or vans would pick them up daily and bring them to Stonington Institute facilities in either Groton or North Stonington.

Members on Thursday evaluated all uses for the property, including permitted use, specially permitted use and existing use on the property. However, in 1991 the state enacted legislation creating a moratorium on new nursing home beds. This year, a public act extended that moratorium to 2016. The town attorney said nursing homes require special use permits.

Members also needed to consider federal law.

The Americans with Disabilities and Fair Housing acts allow individuals access to fair opportunities to live in supported housing environments in residential zones.

"It's not about the people. It's about the use of the building and the land. I see that (the people) separately," board member Catherine Newlin said. "... These people are already in our community in a smaller scale. Putting 144 in one building doesn't make it better."

Avena urged Newlin and other board members to make the decision wisely as they "are on the record" and from their decision onward, must also make future decisions with the same mindset should other similar applications come forward.

He also advised "higher scrutiny" of the documents the board has related to the case before it made its vote.

Avena said the official vote needs to stand the test of time.

j.hanckel@theday.com

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