Neighbors to Mountainside: ‘We don’t want you here’
Property values, children’s safety, tax assessment, water and septic, traffic, lack of community support, and land use violations — those were some of the reasons residents gave at Tuesday night’s Planning and Zoning public hearing as they spoke in opposition to a proposed drug rehabilitation facility at 162 Old West Mountain Road.
The commission heard from 11 speakers during the public comment period that followed a presentation from the applicant, Mountainside, which has submitted a two-part application to amend the town’s zoning regulations to add a new special permit use for an “Extended Residence Care Facility” within the town’s R-AAA residential zone and establish a facility on four parcels of residentially zoned land.
Twenty-four additional speakers who had signed up to give public comment went unheard during the hearing, which was continued to Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m. at East Ridge Middle School.
“We will not conclude tonight,” Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti told the 170-plus person crowd before the hearing began. “We have 35 names on the list. We ask that if you don’t speak tonight, then hold your comments and we’ll pick up right where we left off on Feb. 7.”
Despite Mucchetti’s announcement, several residents, growing impatient during the 90-minute presentation, interrupted Mountainside Vice President Matt Eakin and the applicant’s engineer.
“We don’t want you here,” one man in the crowd said.
Another man, a local Realtor, stood up and said the applicant was wasting the commission’s time.
Both comments drew a round of applause from the room.
“The applicant is entitled to present application,” said Tom Beecher, the commission’s attorney.
“They could take all night and we couldn’t stop them,” Mucchetti reminded the crowd when it became hostile again moments later.
“It’s state statute. Let the applicant finish.”
Parking and septic
Two elements of the application that came under the scrutiny of the commission were parking and septic.
Mountainside seeks 17 beds at the facility, and a 15-space parking area to accommodate staff members working on-site.
Eakin said that only staff members would be driving onto the site, and that the only way patients would come on and off the property is through Mountainside transportation.
“We want a 17-bed residence, nothing more,” he said. “We are open to suggestions from the commission on how to cap it so we can put to rest the speculation of widespread expansion.”
Before the total of number of beds is determined, though, the applicant will have to await the results of a state audit of the project’s septic system plans that estimates 150 gallons of septic usage per day per resident.
“Is that enough for 17 beds, a full kitchen and a full-time laundry service?” Commissioner George Hanlon asked.
Commissioner Mark Zeck wondered if there were enough parking spots on-site to accommodate visitor vehicles or ambulances.
Eakin, who stressed earlier in the meeting that Mountainside’s clientele would be working professionals older than 40 years of age with college or master’s-level degrees, said that weekend visits would be allowed for only two to three patients and that his company — owned by New York-based venture capitalist firm Artemis Partners LLC — was committed to its policy of not allowing open visitations during the week.
“No picnics, no parties … it’s going to run the same way every day,” he said. “The more people on-site, the less confidential it becomes and then our mission is compromised.”
As for emergency medical services, Eakin said that no narcotics would be dispensed on-site and that he expects a “low number” of ambulance visits.
“How can we be assured you won’t be changing your plan to allow narcotics?” Zeck asked.
Eakin said he wanted to work with the commission on how to address that concern.
“We are applying for exactly what we want to do there,” he said. “We’re not trying to sneak one in. We’re open to any discussions.”
Withdraw or deny
Peter Olson, a land use and conservation attorney representing residents Chuck and Françoise Lampe, was the first person to speak and listed 10 reasons why the commission should deny the applicant.
He called the application “ambiguous,” “wholly inadequate,” “nonsensical,” and “impractical and unenforceable,” warning the commission that the terms of the special permit — if approved — could easily be violated.
“A limitation on the number of beds based on three beds per acre bears no rational relation to the proposed use, allows this applicant to expand its use beyond that presented here tonight,” he said.
During his 20-minute presentation, Olson urged the commission to deny the zone regulation change because it is “spot zoning.”
“Spot zoning singles out for special treatment a lot or a small area in a way that does not further such a plan,” he said. “The Mountainside proposed regulation change is plainly spot zoning. The regulation specifically identifies the four parcels of land which Mountainside proposes to purchase as able to take advantage of the regulation change, to the exclusion of all other parcels of land in the town.”
Olson said the proposed regulation change also is not in accordance with the town’s comprehensive plan or with the Plan of Conservation and Development. He added that the zoning regulations do not contemplate uses like the one proposed in residential zones.
“The zoning regulations only permit commercial and institutional uses that are traditionally accessory to the residential uses, such as churches, schools and recreational uses,” he said. “These uses are generally for the public benefit, and are traditionally walkable. The only concession to commercial uses are small-scale uses — home offices and day care.”
The lawyer argued that the regulation, in its current form, constitutes poor planning and does not comply with general statutes required from the wetlands commission.
“The applicant has not submitted an application for permit to conduct regulated activity, nor is there evidence that the commission, acting in its capacity as the wetlands commission, or its staff have determined that the application does not involve regulated activities,” he said. “The application for special permit and site plan must be withdrawn or denied.”
David Matteini, managing director of Artemis Partners, presented the application’s economic and fiscal impact study Tuesday night.
He told the room that, if approved, Mountainside’s facility would add $1.3 million to the town’s tax base and $138,000 in annual tax revenue.
Matteini said the company would spend $2.4 million to revitalize the property — without altering the footprint of the historic home — and that would create 15 new construction jobs, in addition to the 16 jobs associated directly with the facility.
“Our proposed residence offers clear economic gains,” said Matteini as he went over a mill rate comparison between Ridgefield and Canaan — where Mountainside’s five-day detox center is located.
The statement drew a mix of laughter and boos from the audience.
“Of all the jobs created, not one is guaranteed to go to a Ridgefielder,” said Commissioner John Katz.
“That’s correct,” Matteini said.
Tom Reynolds, who’s lived at 122 Old West Mountain Road since 1976, spoke during the public comment period and said that he searched for a good reason the town’s zoning regulations should be changed for the benefit of Mountainside but couldn’t find one.
“It has been suggested that Ridgefield would receive a ‘tax windfall’ if the property in question is converted to commercial use,” said Reynolds, a certified public account with Reynolds & Rowella. “This is simply not true.”
He told the commission that in speaking with Tax Assessor Al Garzi he found out the most commonly used method for determining a tax assessment is current value, and that this is based on the property’s highest and best use.
“For commercial properties, in addition to the current value method, the assessor can use as alternatives a formula based on income or a comparable sales analysis,” he said. “Of these three methods, the current value based on this property’s use as a residence provides the highest value for tax purposes, and thus produces the highest tax for the town. If the property were to be used for commercial purposes, this change would not alter the current tax assessment, since the highest and best use is still as a residence.”
He said the properties in question currently pay $107,000 in real estate taxes.
“Should a commercial business be allowed to operate at this location, the real estate tax assessment would remain exactly where it is today,” he said.
“So I come back to my original dilemma: What financial advantage does this proposal bring to the residents of Ridgefield? I see none. There is no financial benefit to our town.”
Where’s the support?
Catherine Neligan, the spokesperson for the Ridgefield Neighborhood Preservation Alliance (RNPA), attacked the applicant for making six “misleading” public statements, including that it had any support from the community.
“I ask Mountainside to document this support. I also ask our town planner to give us a total count of letters they have received to date supporting Mountainside’s application as well as the total number of letters received to date opposing Mountainside’s application,” she said.
In regard to the 17-bed facility, Neligan said the application states something entirely different.
“Why does your application still ask for three beds per acre as of today’s date? Your intention and what you will be allowed to do if your application is approved don’t align, and that should concern us all,” she said.
“Ridgefield residents don’t want a 46-bed, 39-bed or 17-bed commercial facility in their neighborhoods,” Neligan said. “We don’t want any commercial beds for rent in our neighborhoods.”
The RNPA spokesperson took exception to Mountainside’s suggestion that Fairfield County has “a clear need” for a live-in treatment facility.
Citing statistics Sig Ackerman, the president and medical director of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Neligan told the commission there wasn’t an unmet demand for treatment in this region, including Ridgefield.
Silver Hill currently has 129 beds for addiction and mental illness and uses an average of 81 per day — capacity for an additional 48 patients, according to Ackerman.
“It seems to me that Silver Hill may have our county’s needs covered when it comes to a live-in treatment facility and for half the price of the $60,000 a month that Mountainside plans to charge its clients,” Neligan said. But, if Ridgefield decides that it needs more treatment resources and/or more prevention measures in our town, let’s meet those needs in an appropriate location. Let’s start this conversation as a town, but not one directed, engineered and manipulated by a for-profit player like Mountainside.”
Neligan provided the commission with a study that details a decrease in value of up to 17% for homes in that are neighbors to such facilities.
“Mountainside’s example of the few homes in the immediate vicinity of its extremely rural Canaan facility is ridiculous and misleading,” she said. “Simply put, the population density of Canaan is only 33 people per square mile, while Ridgefield has 675 people per square mile.
“You can’t compare ‘apples’ and ‘elephants.’”
She was one of six speakers who talked about property values.
Rita Jedrziewski, who’s lived at 258 Old West Mountain Road for 16 years and has been looking to sell her home, said she reached an agreement with a prospective buyer in October but was
“blindsided” by the Mountainside news a few weeks later.
“It delayed the contract signing and the closing,” she said.
“My property, which has always been an asset, has turned into a liability,” Jedrziewski said.
“Just the potential of it has threatened my ability to sell my house … it’s a stressful situation.”
Bruce and Wendi Preston also spoke and noted that they’ve had trouble selling their home — something they’ve been forced to do because Bruce is legally blind and needs out-of-state medical care.
“If this application is approved, it will really hurt us financially,” Wendi said. “This is not what we planned for.”
Joe Huleatt, who purchased his house at 155 Old West Mountain Road the same day Mountainside filed its application, said he wanted to give a voice for the kids in the neighborhood.
He told the commission that he and his family had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world but chose Ridgefield as “our place to call home” because of town’s safety rating and great schools.
“This was a no-brainer for us,” he said.
“The zoning in this area gave us enough space for the kids to play and throw a ball, and not have to worry about busy streets or strangers around our house. We thought we had found the perfect neighborhood.”
The home buyer said he felt betrayed when he heard Mountainside was applying for a commercial use of a property across the street.
“There is no way on this green earth I would have purchased this property had I known there was a commercial use property across the street that will bring excess of 200 strangers a year to my neighborhood,” Huleatt said.
Instead of getting to know the neighborhood and schools, Huleatt and his wife have been considering security systems and surveillance cameras and other protection devices, he said.
“If this commercial use application is not thrown out, potentially my kids and my neighbor’s kids would be catching their school bus across the street from a facility catering to strangers who have no interest whatsoever in our neighborhood and no security to prevent them from walking out of the facility whenever they choose.”
The final speaker of the night, Maggie Watson of Sharp Hill Lane, shared a personal anecdote that touched on the inherent safety risks associated with rehabilitation facilities.
“My son was treated in three different centers,” she said. “The patients there are not stable — they’re unpredictable and they’re dangerous. …
“It’s a very difficult environment, no matter who is being treated,” Watson said. “Addiction does not discriminate.”
Watson shared with the room that her son relapsed several times before committing suicide.
“The national recovery rate is not very high,” she said.
“Rehab centers do not belong in any residential area. They’re not appropriate or safe.”
The meeting closed at 10 p.m. and the frustration from the audience was still palpable.
“How many more nights spent away from our children to put up with this?” one resident asked as Mucchetti was trying to ask the client for a 35-day extension that would allow the commission time to conduct a third public hearing in the middle of February.
“Do they get to commandeer the meeting again?” said Reynolds about the scheduled Feb. 7 hearing. “They had their opportunity to present tonight.”
Several residents voiced strong opposition against Mountainside making another presentation at that hearing.
“Why can’t they sign a sheet and wait to speak like the rest of us?” a man in the crowd said.
Mucchetti said that the applicant has the right to present information that the public requested, including a property value study that has not yet been completed as well as the state-audited septic plan.
“Obviously there’s a lot missing in their application,” said Reynolds.