Shared driveway creates obstacle for autism school's office plan

A private, non-profit school turned down by the Planning and Zoning Board for a plan to use a single-family house as office space is mulling its options for the property, which could include an office with direct access from the main property, an adult day care center, or a group home.
The Connecticut Center for Child Development at 95 Wolf Harbor Road applied to the P&Z for permission to merge with the adjacent property it owns at 115 Wolf Harbor Road. As part of the application, the center requested a special permit and site plan review to allow the house at #115 to be used as office space for the school.

By a 4-4 vote at its May 17 meeting, the motion failed and the permit was not approved. The zone for both properties is R-A, which requires acre-sized lots for single-family homes. The office use is allowed by special permit.

The private school serving autistic children moved to 95 Wolf Harbor Road in 2009, having received unanimous approval at the board’s Jan. 29, 2009 meeting to build its 27,835 square foot building on the 4.59-acre parcel.

According to the school’s website, “Since its establishment as a private, non-profit organization in 1995, The Connecticut Center for Child Development (CCCD) has provided a continuum of services for Individuals with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, and related disorders and other co-occurring disorders.”

The school purchased the adjoining 1.43-acre property at 115 Wolf Harbor Road for $375,500 on April 30, 2013. The property has a 1,500 square foot house built in 1994. It is a rear lot behind the property at 105 Wolf Harbor Road, and shares a common driveway with an adjacent house at 119 Wolf Harbor Road.

In making the failed proposal for the school to the board, Attorney Martin L. McCann said the school wanted to relocate its diagnostic center to the house at 115 Wolf Harbor Road. Employees and clients would use the driveway from Wolf Harbor Road, rather than parking at the school’s main parking lot. McCann said the request did not include installation of a path between the two properties.

“The house will be exactly as it is. We are not changing the exterior,” said McCann. “This will continue to look like and behave like a single-family dwelling in an R-A zone.”

Had the board approved the permit, three people from the diagnostic center would work there: a full-time administrator, along with a clinical psychologist and a behavioral analyst. The latter two would have a client for one to two hours, and there would be one to three meetings with parents per week, said McCann.

McCann said the school’s outreach program would also be moved to the house. That program employs three behavioral analysts who work in school districts. He said they need a place to complete reports and keep their files. He said analysts would be in the house about once a week.

McCann said he received a call the afternoon of the meeting from an attorney for Kenneth Ponelli, the owner of the home at 121 Wolf Harbor Rd., who had a concern about the shared use of the driveway.

“We see this as a light use that would be akin to what you would see if a single family was occupying it,” said McCann.

Ponelli was the sole person attending the meeting, and he asked the board to deny the proposal, expressing concerns about the shared use of the 600-foot long driveway, which he described as “beautifully secluded.” He said he “specifically purchased” the house at #121 to rent to his son so he can raise a family when he is a little older.

“In no way is this special permit acceptable to me,” said Ponelli.

Ponelli said that children would like to ride their bicycles up and down the driveway. With the school’s proposal, Ponelli said there would be different parents every day, along with office staff and cleaning people using a residential, private driveway.

“We will have unknown people going up the driveway,” said Ponelli.

Ponelli complained that he did not receive a letter about the meeting, nor was there a sign installed on the property regarding the public hearing. He said he knew about the meeting only because his father saw the legal notice in the newspaper.

In response to Ponelli’s concerns, McCann said, “We agree the driveway is beautiful and secluded. We have no intention to change the character of the driveway.” He said the volume of traffic would be comparable to that generated by a family with two teenaged drivers.

Suzanne Letso, chief executive officer for the school, said the house was rented for two years to four staff members. Letso said that use generated more traffic than a mother driving children with disabilities.

In his response, Ponelli said, “If you have a driveway, do you want unknown people in your driveway every day? They have to abandon the driveway.”

In their commentary, board members Thomas Nichol and Richard Lutz, both of whom voted against approval, had questions about who was responsible for plowing and other driveway maintenance.

City Planner David B. Sulkis said agreements are generally written into the land records specifying that maintenance is a shared responsibility of all property owners who use the driveway.

Commenting on the decision in a May 18 e-mail, Letso said the school is reviewing its options. These include construction of a footpath from 95 to 115 Wolf Harbor Road, or using the house for an adult day care center for up to four clients, or as group home.

“We will look at cost and feasibility of a footpath, but given the need for additional space for our adult day program (which was slated to take over our rental space on Oxford Road had our plan been approved last night), we may have to utilize the house as adult day care unless or until we can obtain permission to use it for administrative purposes,” wrote Letso, saying that some families had also requested the house be used as a group home.