Residents speak out against planned battered women's shelter

An attorney has filed  an appeal with the city, contesting approval of a safe house for battered women in Woodmont.

Attorney Charles J. Willinger, in an August letter, said he is appealing a decision by Assistant City Planner Emmeline Harrigan that a shelter that will serve up to 15 individuals at a time conforms with the city’s single family zoning regulations.

The Birmingham Realty Group bought the Woodmont house 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.

Last January, Harrigan told BHCare that the house conforms to current single-family zoning regulations.

The house “is consistent with the existing single family residential and is in compliance with the City of Milford’s Planning and Zoning regulations, therefore no additional planning and zoning board application or approval is necessary,” Harrigan wrote in a Jan. 12, 2012, letter.

Harrigan said the proposed use for the house conforms with the city’s definition of a single family residence because it has one kitchen and is being used by people operating a common household.

Harrigan said it’s no different from a group of 10 nurses, for example, who decide to share a summer beach cottage, or a group of students who rent a beach house while they are in school, something typically seen along East Broadway.

Woodmont residents do not agree, and they let their feelings be known at a recent Board of Aldermen meeting.

Joseph Schubert said the city is using “arbitrary interpretation” of the R5 zoning regulation.

Another resident said she looked at buying the house several years ago and wanted to make it a two-family house or a single-family with an in-law apartment, to be shared by herself and relatives. She was told that use did not conform to zoning on the street.

Kelley Cummings argued that if the women who move to the house only plan to stay there temporarily as they await more permanent housing, they cannot be considered as “operating a common household.”

Residents who spoke out against the house said they are not opposed to helping battered women and their children; they just don’t think the Woodmont neighborhood is the right place. They think the houses are too close together, and that it wouldn’t be safe for the neighbors or the women living there.

“They can’t be safe in that neighborhood,” said resident Ellen Austin.

Opponents also argued that Milford is compromising its zoning regulations.

In his letter, Willinger writes, “The intended use of the property is a safe house or shelter for victims of domestic abuse and their children and will be operated pursuant to the Umbrella Center for Domestic Violence Services program of BHCare.

“As such it is not a permitted use in the R-5 single family resident zone,” he wrote.

Willinger is seeking a Zoning Board of Appeals override of Harrigan’s ruling.

According to city records, the ZBA will hear the matter Sept. 10.

One resident spoke in favor of the safe house and said that all the opposition makes her ashamed to live in Woodmont.

The resident said she lived on a street in Norwalk where there was a similar house. Her father owned much of the property on the street, and when people asked him to stop the sale to a domestic violence shelter, he said. “I have four daughters, and I can’t say ‘no’ to something like this’.”

The resident said there was never an incident with the women, and that her 91-year-old mother, who still lives on the street, likes seeing the women walking safely up the street with their children.