Law & Justice

Sober Home Owners File Lawsuit Against Yorktown Town Board

A special-use permit allowing for the operation of a sober living residence at 482 Underhill Ave. has been revoked. Credits: Facebook

YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Following a 4-0 vote last week, in which the town board revoked the special-use permit that allowed for the operation of a sober living residence at 482 Underhill Ave., the owners of the home filed a federal lawsuit against the members of the board (embedded below).

At dispute on Tuesday, July 18, had been whether the special-use permit for a convalescent home should transfer from previous owners Tom McCrossan and Mark McGoldrick to the new owners, Justin Gurland, Matthew Rinklin and Zachary Clark, who bought the property on May 11.

The town board and Town Attorney Michael J. McDermott argued that, as per conditions of the special-use permit approved in March 2015, a change in ownership meant that the permit issued to McCrossan and McGoldrick was null and void.

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Attorneys for the new owners, however, said that McCrossan and McGoldrick were staying on as operators of the sober living residence, which, they argued, satisfied the conditions of the permit.

The hearing began with Robert L. Schonfeld, attorney for Gurland, Rinklin and Clark, accusing neighbors opposed to the sober living residence as “having animus toward people with disabilities” and accusing the board of “appeasing neighbors in an election year.”

“I think that the town was searching around for reasons to get rid of the site because of neighborhood opposition,” Schonfeld said.

McDermott and Councilman Tom Diana both said they took “great exception” to Schonfeld’s characterization of the board. They said the hearing was called because of a “very specific legal issue” and had nothing to do with the merits of sober homes.

Schonfeld responded, “I appreciate that, but…” before being cut off by Diana. “I don’t appreciate you,” the councilman said.

Deputy Supervisor Gregory Bernard said Schonfeld’s accusation was baffling because two of the five members presently on the board voted to issue the permit in 2015. The members who voted against it—himself and Councilman Vishnu Patel—did so only because of a specific land-use issue, he said.

“The location is what’s in question,” Bernard said. “So, leave that alone and why don’t you argue on the legal merits?”

Supervisor Michael Grace said he was one of McCrossan and McGoldrick’s biggest supporters when the application was first made. It was a stance, Grace said, for which he took a lot of heat.

McCrossan and McGoldrick purchased the home in April 2014. After a contentious and lengthy approval process, they operated a for-profit sober living residence, called Constellations Recovery, out of the home for about a year before closing last summer fpllowing the overdose death of Hank McWilliam, an 18-year-old resident of the home. An allegation of sexual assault was also made against a staff member, but that was ruled inconclusive by the Yorktown Police Department.

“Unfortunately, all your skeptics were proven right,” Grace said. “There was more than a single incident that occurred in a very short period of time at that place.”

Grace said the fact that the home was sold to Gurland, Rinklin and Clark to “right the ship,” as Schonfeld said, was proof it was much more akin to a business than a single-family residence, which is what the property is zoned for. Schonfeld said the trio, whose company is called Release Recovery, had a “perfect track record” of running a similar home in Brooklyn.

Attorneys for Gurland, Rinklin and Clark, in correspondence with the town, had argued that they did not ultimately need the permit because they could operate under the town’s definition of a family. Grace said that argument, which he himself made two years ago, was “an incorrect argument.”

“Unrelated adults living in a common setting does not fit the definition of a family,” Grace said.

Additionally, Grace said, listing McCrossan and McGoldrick as operators of the sober living residence was a “ruse” and an attempt to circumvent conditions of the permit.

“I don’t believe you for one second,” Grace said. “It’s absolutely not credible to tell me that either McGoldrick or McCrossan have anything to do with it other than it’s just a ruse to get around [conditions] on the permit.”

The town board made its decision to revoke the permit following a public hearing, in which several people spoke, including the parents of Hank McWilliam.

Jim McWilliam, Hank’s father, thanked the board for approving Constellations Recovery in the first place, saying it was “very forward thinking.” He said he does not believe there is a “not in my backyard” mentality in Yorktown. He spoke out against sober living residences in general, saying they are commercial enterprises with no government regulation.

“It certainly is not a single family,” McWilliam said.

Cassie McWilliam, Hank’s mother, called sober living residences “a money-making business that preys on people who are unwell, who are struggling. It preys on their families.”

Resident Pia Riverso said the conditions of the special-use permit were “torturously” negotiated two years ago. Even if McCrossan and McGoldrick remained as operators, which she does not believe is the case, she said the language is clear that any change in owners “or” operators would result in the permit being revoked.

“It is quite clear what went on here,” Riverso said. “This is an effort to go back and try and circumvent what was a very specific provision and what was very specifically negotiated.”

Resident Melvyn Tanzman said Grace was attempting to have it both ways by arguing the hearing was only on a specific provision of the special-use permit, yet referencing the competency of the previous owners as a reason to revoke the permit.

“Unfortunately, when you have people who have a history of substance abuse, there may be incidents that go on,” Tanzman said. “And yes, in my eyes, there is a discriminatory attitude at times against people with that type of disability.”

McCrossan, Gurland and Rinklin, when approached by Yorktown News after the meeting, did not respond to a question about the board’s decision to revoke the permit.

Lawsuit Filed

The lawsuit, filed on Thursday, July 20, mirrors much of the language Schonfeld used at the July 18 public hearing.

In the suit, Schonfeld alleges that the four board members who voted to revoke the permit two days prior—Supervisor Grace and councilmembers Bernard, Diana and Patel—did so only in response to “fierce neighborhood opposition” based on “animus” toward people recovering from alcohol and substance use disorders. Councilman Ed Lachterman, who was absent from the meeting, was not named in the suit.

The vote to revoke the special-use permit, Schonfeld argued, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. Schonfeld also alleges that Yorktown’s zoning code is discriminatory because it does not allow for the operation of a sober living residence as an “as-of-right use” in a residential zone. The Underhill Avenue home is three acres and the special-use permit allowed for up to 14 recovering drug and alcohol addicts to live in the home at one time.

McDermott declined to comment on the lawsuit but noted that the town has not been served.

In the lawsuit, Schonfeld stated that Grace “refused” to hear any testimony from Compass Westchester or Release Recovery prior to making his decision. He alleges that the decision to revoke the permit was a “done deal” prior to last week’s hearing.

Grace told Yorktown News that the lawsuit is another case of “no good deed goes unpunished.” He said Yorktown was “on the edge of innovation” when it authorized the operation of a sober living home in March 2015, which, he noted, was also an election year. The issue is simply a “land use” one, he said, and the home is “incompatible with a residential zone.” He reiterated that the town has not been served.

Schonfeld is seeking to overturn the board’s decision to revoke the permit. He is also seeking monetary and punitive damages as well as compensation for attorney’s fees.

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