Thursday, February 26, 2009
Planning and Zoning: "No" to sober, "Yes" to drug drive thru, and still no chair
Planning and zoning denied a special exception to a residential recovery house for patients recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, and approved plans for a drug store with a drive-thru window, in a meeting that began on Wednesday evening and ended early Thursday morning. They also approved applications by Middletown Water and Sewer department, a subdivision of the Home Depot Plaza, and a proposal from the Conservation Commission. And in the news that isn't news department, they failed to elect a chair.
Wendi Clark was before the Commissioners with a proposal for a special exception to allow up to 9 unrelated individuals to live as a family in a two family home at the corner of Loveland and S. Main Street (Eye story). She was represented by a very articulate attorney, Greg Kirschner, who works for the CT Fair Housing Center, based in Hartford. Kirschner presented the legal background that he argued made it impossible for the Commissioners to deny Clark a special exception. Geen Thazhampallath, interim deputy attorney for the City, also gave legal opinions.
Kirschner and Thazampallath both agreed that the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of disabilities, and both agreed that addiction constituted a disability. Both agreed that special accommodations for the disabled were appropriate. They disagreed, however, on whether those accommodations of necessity included the right to living in a group home in a Mixed Use (MX) zone in which both businesses and residences co-existed. Kirschner argued that the Commissioners had absolutely no basis for denying a group of addicts the right to live in this house if they would not deny a traditional family that same right. Thazampallath countered that the Commissioners did have the right to uphold zoning regulations.
Many members of the public weighed in on this application, mostly in opposition. Ralph Wilson, an attorney who has represented many clients at Planning and Zoning hearings (including later this evening the Drive-thru Drug Store), has his offices immediately adjacent to the proposed Sober house. He spoke passionately about the effect of the Sober House residents' cars on access to his property. He was outraged at what Kirschner had told the commissioners, "I'm mad, and this is why I'm mad: This is a bunch of hogwash this guy's giving you." He urged the commissioners to deny the application and offered his services to the city if there was a lawsuit.
Common Council member Earle Roberts spoke about the importance of maintaining a definition of a family that was just like the one he grew up in. Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, who said that he had previously represented Wendi Clark, argued forcefully against the sober house, saying that this was not a situation of a group of disabled people pooling their money to rent a house in the same way that a family would, this was a situation of a landlord making a lot of money renting out individual rooms or beds to people who may or may not stay for very long, "This is a rooming house, masquerading as a sober house."
Edward Madison, former member of the New Haven Planning Commission and overseer of a network of sober houses, spoke to the Commissioners of the importance of resolving sober house issues administratively, not through planning commisions. He said this was the best way to reach a decision that was not unduly influenced by the political pressure that a public hearing includes. He said that litigation could be extremely expensive, noting that the city of West Haven spent $750,000 to take a case to the Supreme Court.
The commissioners unanimously denied the application for an exception, citing the lack of suitable parking space. After the meeting, I asked Attorney Kirschner for his reaction to the ruling. He said that he would be speaking with the City's attorney to try to work out a plan for the sober house that would not involve litigation. He said, "The last thing we want to do is to go to court, but sometimes that's the only option."
Another pharmacy with a drive-thru window
In October, the P&Z approved plans for the congregation of the Shiloh Christian Church to build a new Church Building between Coe Avenue and Old Saybrook Road (Eye Story). On Wednesday night, the P&Z commissioners heard a proposal to build a Walgreens store with a Drive-thru pharmacy on the property they would be vacating.
Over 50 members of the Shiloh congregation, which will be able to build a new church with the money from Walgreens, came to support the drug store project. Sonja Manjon, as Vice President at Wesleyan, also came to support the construction of the Walgreens Store. Several residents of neighborhoods around the site expressed great concern about the traffic on surrounding streets. Other residents expressed concern about the lack of any plans to improve pedestrian or bicycle traffic. Elizabeth Emery pointed out that the professional traffic engineer failed to provide any information whatsoever on any traffic other than automobile traffic.
After hearing from dozens of members of the public, the commissioners debated whether the proposal should be approved. Only Catherine Johnson opposed the project. She said that the city was getting precious little in return for providing a special exception that greatly increased the value of the property. Commissioner Quentin Phipps said that his support for the project was reluctant, other commissioners expressed unabashed enthusiasm for another drive-thru pharmacy. The commissioners approved the project with two amendments: they encouraged the addition of a new cross-walk across East Main Street, and they asked the developer to make 10 of the 65 parking spaces not of asphalt but rather lined with a surface pervious to water.
The commissioners approved three separate projects by Water and Sewer: a water main extending from Moody School out Country Club Road to across I91, a storage building on Berlin Road, and a Bartholomew Road pumping station. They also approved a subdivision of the lot containing the Home Depot on Washington Street, to accommodate plans for a Price Chopper in that plaza. These all passed without substantial controversy.
The Conservation Commission proposed a change to the 1993 Plan of Conservation and Development, to designate the Merriam Tree Farm property as "suitable for acquisition as open space." This is necessary for the city to use money recently aproved by Common Council for the purchase of the development rights. This proposal did not generate much controversy, although one member of the public, Jeff Pierce, did say, "All this designation of open space is a bunch of hooey." Several members of the Conservation Commission spoke to the importance of the Merriam property for open space preservation. The P&Z commissioners unanimously approved the designation.
Still no chair.
In the absence of Barbara Plum, who in December (Eye Story) proclaimed herself chair because she was the last commissioner to have been so elected (in 2007), Richard Pelletier acted as chair for this meeting. Commissioner Pelletier rearranged the order of the agenda considerably from what was posted, to the consternation of several Shiloh congregation members, who were forced to wait with their children until nearly midnight for a decision on the Walgreens application. Commissioner Pelletier said that he had rearranged the agenda for good reasons, but this was apparently done without the knowledge of other commissioners, two of whom apologized for the change in agenda.
Early Thursday morning, Pelletier called for nominations for a chair. Barbara Plum and Deborah Kleckowski were both nominated, although neither was present for the meeting. The voting was inconclusive, as neither candidate garnered the 5 votes necessary for election.