Guest Column

Regulating Sober Homes Isn't Rocket Science

Contrary to the comments from some Town Board members in the June 14 article about the legal settlement involving the sober home at 482 Underhill Ave., coming up with a new definition for the term “family” is not rocket science. In fact, the work has already been done for the town by the New York State Department of State.

In a clearly written eight-page Legal Memorandum, the department’s Office of General Counsel advises towns wishing to regulate the use of single-family houses for transient individuals to look at the definition of “family” in the city of Poughkeepsie zoning code. The definition, which has been upheld by the courts, is based on the concept of the “functional equivalent of a traditional family.”

Under this approach, the town can specify the number of persons, e.g., four, whether related or not, that it considers a “family” while groups greater than four would have the burden of proving to the town, with evidence, that they meet the criteria for being a “functional equivalent of a traditional family.”

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The criteria could include:

• Does the group constitute a single housekeeping unit, e.g., is there common ownership of furniture and appliances among the members of the household? Do the members of the group share expenses for food, rent, utilities or other household expenses?

• Is this a more—or less—permanent living arrangement for group members, e.g., are members of the household employed in the area?

• Are the living arrangements stable or transient, e.g., what addresses do the members show on their voter registration, driver’s license, motor vehicle registration or tax filing?  (This should address Councilman Ed Lachterman’s worry that a child returning from college would be considered “transient.”)

If the sober home cannot prove that it is the “functional equivalent of a traditional family,” then it could apply for a special permit—which gets to the second change our elected officials need to make in the zoning code.

Right now, the zoning code allows for-profit businesses, such as daycare centers, boarding houses and office uses, to operate in single-family houses by special permit. Each use must meet a specific set of land use requirements based on the type of use.

A draft of a new special permit that would cover sober homes was prepared in 2015. Copies of the draft were given to Town Board members two weeks ago. Like the requirements for other special permits, the draft covered specific land-use issues, such as where the facility could be located, maximum occupancy, noise, parking and screening requirements, etc. The draft also included a due process provision that allowed the approving board, after a showing of good cause, to waive any of the permit requirements in order to accommodate state or federal laws.

But despite having been reviewed by the building inspector and the Planning Board, the majority members of the Town Board were never willing to have a public discussion about the draft special permit. Nor were they willing to discuss updating the definition of “family.” Instead, they did nothing. They did nothing to correct what they acknowledged were problems with the existing zoning code.  

In 2015, Yorktown wasn’t prepared to deal with the relatively new concept of sober homes. That led to a year of acrimonious public meetings and three lawsuits: one by homeowners against the Zoning Board of Appeals and two against the town by the owners of the sober home. We shouldn’t have to go through that experience again. And we won’t have to if today’s Town Board members decide to be proactive. Knowing what we know now, there’s no excuse for inaction. It’s time to get to work updating our zoning code.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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