BHCare plans to sell Woodmont house and locate women's shelter elsewhere

BHCare, the owner of a once-proposed safe house for battered women, plans to sell its property at 16 Village Road in Woodmont and find a new place for its shelter.

“We will not speak to where we are looking, as the new location must be kept confidential,” spokeswoman Emily Granelli said.

It was the lack of secrecy, plus neighborhood objections, that led to the cancellation of the batttered women’s shelter program in Woodmont earlier this year.

After the address of the property was revealed at public meetings and online, BHCare said it would not put a shelter there.

That was not the end of the matter, however. Shortly after BHCare said it planned to abandon the project, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals rescinded a letter that the assistant city planner had written to BHCare when it bought the property. In that letter, the assistant city planner said the house could legally be used as a women’s shelter.

Attorney Charles J. Willinger Jr., of Bridgeport-based Willinger, Willinger and Bucci, representing several Woodmont neighbors, addressed the ZBA last month specificially about that letter, in which Assistant City Planner Emmeline Harrigan told BHCare that a women’s shelter conformed with the neighborhood’s single-family zoning regulations.

Willinger told the ZBA that if it did not rescind the letter, it would set a precedent for other agencies to put similar projects in residential neighborhoods, or leave the door open for BHCare to use the house for a different type of shelter.

The attorney argued that up to 15 women living in the house would not constitute a “family” as outlined in city zoning regulations, and that 15 unrelated people in one home, as the shelter plan suggested, was not a “reasonable number of people.” He said most municipalities limit how many unrelated people can live in one household, noting that Bridgeport limits it to two; Fairfield to five, Wilton to four, as several examples.

He described Woodmont as a close community and said the turnover created by people living there two weeks, another aspect of the shelter plan, and then moving on was not in harmony with the neighborhood.

The R-5 residential zone allows for exceptions. A charitable organization, for example, can apply for a special exception, but then the matter would be opened to a hearing for residents to comment. Willinger said BHCare might have taken that route, but then the address of the shelter would have been public record.

When Harrigan addressed the ZBA in response to Willinger’s comments, she told the members their job was to decide whether her letter was consistent with the city of Milford’s regulations.

Board member Howard Haberman asked if the definition of family was the main issue and whether 15 changing individuals living at the same address constituted a family. Harrigan responded that Milford regulations do not define the number of individuals, but state that these individuals must be living together in common.

Board member Joseph Tuozzola asked why BHCare would choose to use single-family homes for its operations; Harrigan said that is its operational model.

Haberman said he had trouble understanding how a shelter was not a “special use” under zoning regulations, thereby requiring additional steps for approval. Board member John Vaccino said that occupancy by 15 individuals may or may not be a reasonable number, assuming all were committed to the household, but that it would be difficult for such a household to be in harmony with the neighborhood.

Member John Collins said he believed the residents would share the common goal of staying safe and alive, but thought 15 people was too high a number of inhabitants even for a blood-related family. He said harmony in the neighborhood might be disrupted by comings and goings at such a shelter.

After discussion, the board voted to reverse Harrigan’s letter, thereby reversing her statement that a women’s shelter conformed with Milford’s single-family zoning regulations.

Granelli said BHCare will not pursue any special legislation to make creating a safehouse easier in the future.

“We spoke with our statewide coalition (CCADV) and we decided that we will not be pursuing any legislation,” Granelli said. “Zoning decisions are based within communities, and are made on a town-by-town basis; we will not try to override that.

“We are going to work with CCADV to help educate the public on the value of having domestic violence shelters available in our towns and cities,” she added.

The Birmingham Realty Group bought the house for $330,000 in 2012. Birmingham Group Health Services is a Valley-based social service agency that merged in recent years with Harbor Health Services of Branford to form BHCare, which provides a range of programs, including mental health, addiction and prevention services, and domestic violence services.

The Woodmont house has five bedrooms and three bathrooms, according to city records: It is 2,512 square feet.

Granelli did not say when the house will go on the market or at what price it will be listed.

Willinger said he expects Milford’s Planning and Zoning Board may review its zoning regulations as they pertain to the number of unrelated people who can live in a house in a residential area.