ZBA denies appeal of group homes in Greenfield Hill

The Zoning Board of Appeals denied the appeal from Greenfield Hill neighbors Wednesday evening.

The Zoning Board of Appeals denied the appeal from Greenfield Hill neighbors Wednesday evening.

Rachel Scharf / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — The Zoning Board of Appeals voted to deny a petition from neighbors to halt the establishment of group homes in Greenfield Hill.

After a long public hearing Wednesday evening, the 3-2 vote of the ZBA did not reach the supermajority required to overturn a permit issuance.

Attorney Joel Green represented neighbors in arguing that the Board should reverse the decision of Planning Director Jim Wendt, who in March endorsed a building permit for Newport Academy to establish residential group homes in Greenfield Hill.

According to Certificate of Need filings with the state, Newport Academy plans to open two six-bed treatment facilities at 3236 Congress St. and 2495 Redding Rd., which they purchased in January for $3 million and $2 million, respectively.

According to state and federal anti-discrimination guidelines, group homes must be treated as single-family residences. Group home permits can supersede local zoning regulations, such as this case of establishing a non-single family home in the AAA residential zone of Greenfield Hill.

Neighbors have formed the 501(c) organization Neighbors for Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. The organization describes itself on its website as “a grass roots organization that opposes commercial enterprises violating zoning laws by establishing and operating businesses that are prohibited in residential neighborhoods.”

Through fundraising efforts on GoFundMe, the group has raised over $29,000 to pay for legal representation.

While the appeal filed was against the permits for the properties at Congress Street and Redding Road, the application for Congress Street was voted to be untimely after Attorney Timothy Hollister, representing Newport Academy, argued that appellants did not file an appeal within the required 30 days of notice of the property’s change of use.

The appeal against the Redding Road permit, meanwhile, was ruled to be timely, and public hearing proceeded as to the merits of the application.

Green emphasized in his argument that his clients’ appeal was not discriminatory against the need for mental health treatment facilities, but about the process by which the application was filed.

“This is not a referendum on the need for addiction services and how they should be provided in the town of Fairfield, but it really is about process,” Green said. “The process was so poor in terms of information in this community, that’s it not just, fair or reasonable to proceed the way that this application rolled out.”

Green argued that the Redding Road facility does not meet Connecticut’s group home guidelines because it does not receive funding from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Hollister countered that the state application process is ongoing, and such funding could be provided at some point.

“It’s premature,” he said. “We’re still in the licensing stage.”

Green and Hollister also disputed the specifics of reasonable accommodation laws and whether the proposed facility would meet them.

Hollister emphasized that the law clearly states the town cannot discriminate against people with mental illness.

Wendt, who issued the permit, explained that state anti-discrimination statutes are clear that he was required to issue the permit.

“I completely understand the reservations that folks may have about having such a facility in their neighborhood, but I believe that it was our duty under the law to issue the permit,” Wendt said.

In public comment, residents said that they were worried about noise levels and the neighborhood being adversely affected by these facilities. Some said they agreed there is need for such facilities, but they should be established in less residential areas.

Ultimately, the Board voted to uphold the permit.

Reached for comment, Newport Academy’s CEO Joe Procopio said they have been pleased with the process so far.

“We appreciate the thoughtful, thorough approach of the board and look forward to continuing to engage in the process as it moves forward,” Procopio said. “We look forward to expanding our efforts to serve even more families in the area and meeting pressing mental health needs as a valued part of the Fairfield community.”

Green was out of the office and unable to comment as of press time.

Newport Academy is still in the process of applying for a Certificate of Need from the Connecticut Office of Health Strategy. OHS will hold a public hearing with the local community, which they will announce at least two weeks before its scheduled date.

If approved, Newport Academy will also need to pursue further certificates of zoning compliance and occupancy with the Plan and Zoning Department.