Town eyes opt-out from ‘temporary health care structures’
A backyard trailer rented out by a landlord, with no medical training, to physically-impaired tenants; a mobile home sitting on less than half-an-acre of property, without the possibility for public hearing; and wetlands endangered by temporary structures that are not subject to residential-zoning restrictions.
These are the “worst-case scenarios” that Planning and Zoning Commission members described to The Press in response to a new state act — Public Act No. 17-155, or “An Act Concerning Temporary Health Care Structures” — that enables homeowners to build temporary health-care structures on their property to care for individuals with “qualifying mental or physical impairments.”
The act is set to go into effect Sunday, Oct. 1.
Richard Baldelli, director of Planning and Zoning, has recommended the Board of Selectmen that the town opt out of the provision entirely.
“There’s just so many components of this that are wrong for Ridgefield,” he said.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi echoed that sentiment.
“I don’t see how this is viable in a residential zone,” he told The Press this week.
Town residents with elderly relatives who require significant care, but do not have room in their primary residence for someone needing care, could arguably use the act to their benefit and set up a temporary care facility.
“Often, THSs [Temporary Housing Structures] are used to help seniors and people with mental or physical disabilities delay or avoid entering long-term care facilities…” says the state Office of Legislative research. “Generally, THSs cost significantly less than institutional care and can be acquired new or used and sold once they are no longer needed.”
Under the restrictions outlined in the act, the structure cannot have a foundation and must be prefabricated, it can be no larger than 500 square feet, and must be “occupied by a mentally or physically impaired person.”
Baldelli stressed that there are too many ways the act could be exploited — to the detriment of residents.
“The impaired person has to live in the structure,” he said. “If I’m the impaired person, I have to go live in this can in my backyard.” he said.
More worrisome from a planning perspective is the fact that nothing in the act prevents a landowner from turning around and renting the structure out as a “care facility,” so long as the tenants qualify as individuals with impairments.
“I could designate myself as a caregiver — I can’t charge for the care, but I can charge rent,” Baldelli said. “So you’re not charging them for whatever care you might be giving them, but you are charging them rent.”
Marconi also raised issue with septic and utilities for the structures.
Under the act, local municipalities can require the temporary structures to have electricity, and be hooked up to the main residency’s septic or town sewer system.
That would create logistical difficulties for the town, Marconi said, on top of the possible impact to wetlands.
Baldelli also pointed out that the town has little recourse to deny an application for a temporary home under the act.
While residents are required to seek a permit from the town, the act states local zoning boards “cannot deny a permit if the applicant provides proof of compliance with the act.”
A permit for a temporary health care structure is not subject to a public hearing, under the act.
The act also supersedes local use restrictions.
“For a detached accessory dwelling, you have to have more than half an acre of property,” Baldelli said, explaining the current zoning regulations in Ridgefield.
Temporary health care structures have no such requirement under the act.
“The statute does not take into account at all an inland wetlands approval,” Baldelli said.
In his public discussion with the Board of Selectmen regarding the act on Aug. 23, Baldelli said he felt comfortable recommending the town opt-out of Public Act No. 17-155 in part due to the town’s relatively lax accessory apartment regulations.
“When that was passed back in the 90s,” Baldelli told the Selectmen, residents used the law “exactly the opposite of what it was intended for: people moved their parents back in to provide care.”
With that feedback, the town later amended the accessory apartment bylaws to allow homeowners the build apartments in single-family neighborhoods without a public hearing, so long as their prospective tenants were 55 or older.
“Once that impaired person moves out, you now have an approval from the town for an accessory dwelling unit … completely fine to turn around and rent out,” Baldelli told The Press.
There are a specific set of steps the town must take to opt out.
- Hold a public hearing on the proposed opt-out;
- Affirmatively decide to opt-out within the statutory time limit (generally within 65 days of the hearing’s completion);
- State on the record the reasons for its decision; and
- Publish notice of the decision within 15 days in a newspaper that has substantial circulation in the municipality.
Marconi was quick to point out that he did not believe the town could move toward opting out of the act before it went into effect on Oct. 1.
“That’s a question for counsel,” Marconi said.
Baldelli recommended that the town wait until after the law goes into effect on Oct. 1 to officially opt-out of the act.
Any applications received after the law goes into effect but prior to the town’s final opt-out would be grandfathered in, the selectmen said.
The BOS tentatively set September 19 as a date for a public hearing over the act.
“It’s a very strange law in that it gives the town the option to opt-out of it,” Baldelli said.