MAHOPAC, N.Y. - A plan to put a sober-living home in Mahopac was dealt what looks to have been a fatal blow when the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) voted last week against giving the property owners and prospective buyers a use variance that would have let the project move forward.
Margaret Fossati, who owns the 12-acre piece of land located at 345 Croton Falls Road, sought to sell the property to Affinity One, a company that owns 22 upscale sober-living facilities throughout the country.
The board voted 4-2 with one abstention to deny the variance.
“We were all very surprised [by the vote],” said Debbie Fossati, Margaret Fossati’s daughter-in-law. “There is a need here [for sober-living facilities] and I think it’s a perfect spot. We don’t know where to go from here. We are at a complete loss. We thought we had it in the bag. We met all the criteria.”
Debbie Fossati had some harsh words for the ZBA regarding its decision.
“I think they are discriminating against addicts,” she said. “Everyone has addicts in their family, so they are being hypocrites.”
The property in question is the site of the old Putnam County Playhouse, which was in existence from 1949 to 1969. The large building features eight bedrooms and nine bathrooms that at one time accommodated the actors and actresses who stayed there during extended production runs. Before becoming a theater, the property was a horse farm.
The property is in a residentially zoned neighborhood, but the Fossati’s attorney, William Schilling, argued that the building in question, now in disrepair, could never serve as a single-family home and sought to have a variance to change it to a multi-family designation and thus pave the way for the sober home, which would have anywhere from 12 to 14 clients at a time living there. Schilling presented the board with a letter from a local Realtor opining that the property couldn’t be sold as a single-family home due to its size and configuration.
During the presentation by Schilling and Lynda Micheletti, chief operating officer of Praesum Healthcare, which owns Affinity One, it was revealed that the facility would have been staffed by two counselors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Residents would not have cars but would be driven by separate staff to appointments, recreation and wherever else they needed to go.
New York State has no regulations specific to sober homes governing their placement and operation and the town of Carmel zoning codes do not address them either.
“The code makes no mention of sober houses,” Schilling said. “We believe our use meets the very definition of multifamily. When you have a single-family house and want to convert it, there are six conditions, and we meet all six. We seek a use variance, and we meet all the criteria.”
Schilling also provided the board with four letters from residents who supported the plan.
“This is a great choice for this piece of property,” Schilling argued. “But if we fail, we will come to you next month seeking [a variance for multifamily housing] and we meet all the criteria—we are entitled by law. But [a sober home] is a better choice for property.”
Debbie Fossati pointed out that with a regular multifamily home, some of its residents could be active drug users and the neighborhood would see much more traffic than a sober home would generate. “You don’t know who is going to live there,” she said.
Micheletti told the board that Affinity One has “a great track record.”
“We treat approximately 2,500 lives a year,” she said. “The opioid epidemic has impacted this country in a terrible way and our organization tries to enter communities in a respectful manner and improve the services that are offered. We have policies and procedures for people who support safety. Our staff is second to none.”
The renovated property would have included chicken coops, a large garden, hiking trails, and an upgraded swimming pool.
Micheletti noted that the residents who would enter a home such as the one proposed for Mahopac are in the final stages of their rehabilitation and have long-since detoxed and are assimilating back into the community.
But neighbors of the property were unmoved, saying that while it wasn’t a case of “not in my backyard,” they didn’t want it in their backyard. Many noted that Affinity One was a for-profit entity and therefore a business, which, they said, doesn’t belong in a residential neighborhood.
“We do need this, we need more help, but not in a residential neighborhood,” said nearby property owner Brian Long. “Affinity One is a business, and they are trying to put a business into a residential neighborhood. This is not a multifamily [home] where people are going to live there, join the community and be there for a long period of time.”
Frank Monaco, who lives across the street from the property, also contended it was business, but added that he feared for the safety of his family should the sober home move in.
“This is for-profit, so it’s a business and you have to protect the neighborhood,” he argued. “It would be a very undesirable change to our neighborhood. I am worried that people could wander out and get down to our neighborhood across the street. I have grandchildren who visit me all the time.
“I feel bad for the people who would have to go there but they should have a location near the center of town, next to the police station or someplace that could take care of them,” he added.
Neighbor Connie Schaefer said she commiserated with the plight of the addicts, but argued that a sober home had no place in this particular neighborhood.
“I have watched friends and family battle addiction themselves. I have watched people go in and out of rehab. I have no problem with getting people the help they need,” she said. “The problem I have is putting them [in this location], down the block from my home. This is a residential neighborhood. Croton Falls Road is a dark and windy road at night. There is no public bus or a sidewalk for people to walk on.”
Neighbor Ann Marie Burke also made the argument that it would be putting a business in a residential neighborhood.
“I really commend the idea where you are trying to get some help for people, but that area is not for business,” she said. “It sounds like it could almost be a hotel. If you were to approve this then you could have other people who might want to put in things like a bed and breakfast.”
ZBA Vice Chair Philip Aglietti voted in favor of the variance, saying that he felt the applicants met the requirements and that the sober home would be a positive addition to the community.
“Counsel’s submission, I believe, [met] all the requirements for a use variance,” he said. “The property is affected by unique or highly uncommon circumstances that were shown by a number of different matters mentioned by counsel. I think this is something that is needed, and that the town would be proud to have, and I think the variance is the proper thing here.”
But fellow board member Silvio Balzano, disagreed, citing “the business in a residential neighborhood” argument.
“Infinity One is a business and would probably need a use variance for commercial, not an interpretation of this being multifamily,” he said. “I read this as a business and not multifamily, so I am not feeling that.”
Jim Starace also voted against the variance.
“I do feel that for a use variance it would alter the essential character of that neighborhood as was stated by many of the neighbors in this room tonight,” he said.
Julie McKeon voted for the variance along with Aglietti, while Balzano, Starace, Rose Fabino, and Bill Rossiter voted “no.” ZBA Chair John Maxwell abstained.