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Town Sued Over Rehab Facility Decision

Plaintiffs accuse the town of interfering with drug and alcohol treatment following an alleged complaint from another facility.

A new East Hampton substance-abuse facility has filed a lawsuit against the Town of East Hampton, claiming that the town's building inspector flip-flopped on a permitting decision after its competitor in Westhampton Beach complained.

Safe Harbor Retreat, which operates a private pay comprehensive residential facility called , the first of its kind on the East Coast, initially received the green-light from town building inspector Thomas Preiato, who said in letters to founder and CEO Joe McKinsey in 2010 and 2011 that no special permit was needed to operate at 26 Bull Run in East Hampton.

But 19 months later, the building inspector changed his opinion "after further review" and subsequently issued a notice of violation.

According to court papers filed Jan. 25 in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Safe Harbor is accusing the town of violating due process under the Constitution, the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. "By arbitrarily and illegally classifying 26 Bull Run described as something other than a single family use, the Town of East Hampton is threatening to make single family housing unavailable to persons recovering from drugs and alcohol addiction," court documents said. It seeks to reverse a decision arrived at in late September 2011 that a special permit was necessary, an injunction and monetary damages.

Town Attorney Pat Gunn said the town has not yet been served papers and would not be able to comment further given the pending litigation.

Letters of support from Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, Town Police Chief Ed Ecker and Town Attorney John Jilnicki to the OASAS licensing committee dated July 2011 were noted in the lawsuit.

In letters of correspondence between the building inspector's office and McKinsey between February 2010 and November 2011, it was clear the initial opinion had changed.

On Feb. 27, 2010, McKinsey, an Amagansett resident, advised the building inspector in person and by letter that he was entering into a lease with the owners of 26 Bull Run "to establish a high end executive retreat for men and women recovering from alcohol and drug dependence."

He said the patients would reside as a family unit with 24-hour supervision. "The group will live and cook together as a single housekeeping unit," while each individual's suggested length of stay in 11 months. He said patients would not be allowed to have vehicles.

In a letter dated March 1 of that year, McKinsey further explained that The Dunes had a license for Community Residential Services from the State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services since it offered transitional residential services for those who had gone through or completed treatment, but were not ready for independent living.

In a March 4, 2010 letter, Preiato said that after researching the zoning code he determined that zoning requirements "will be met based on the content of your letter and our conversations with regards to the number of residents." Overcrowding and vehicles were not a factor given the parameters of the program.

The fact that the residents would be living as a family unit for a period of 11 months met the criteria of "functioning as a family unit," pursuant to the code.

As a result of Preiato's determination, Safe Harbor spent about $2 million to establish the facility, according to the lawsuit. It opened on Nov. 30, 2010.

His opinion was echoed in an April 5, 2011 letter after McKinsey inquired about whether lighted exit signs were required; they were not.

According to the court records, Gunn informed Safe Harbor's executive director, Madeleine Narvilas, that there had been some complaints about the use of the house at Bull Run. The two met, along with Preiato, for "an off-the-record" conversation, the lawsuit said. Narvilas is a former town attorney. 

"She was told that the complaint arose from an article that appeared in The New York Post. She was told the only complaint was George Benedict, the owner of Seafield, an insurance-based intensive inpatient substance rehabilitation facility located in Westhampton." Benedict was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday morning.

Narvilas was reportedly asked if Safe Harbor would consider applying for a special permit based on a change in use.

On Sept. 27, 2011, Preiato told McKinsey that after further review The Dunes would require administrative review for a special permit. "Your facility could possibly be classified as a semi-public facility," he said. 

Preiato said that certain aspects of the facility, like on-site clinical addiction treatments and services and the transient nature of the facility made it clear such an operation "is not permitted in a residential zone without site plan approval."

The building inspector's office sent a notice of violation on Nov. 2, 2011.

The facility tried to first open at the on Shelter Island in 2008, but abandoned the idea when met with opposition. Residents were fearful the facility would jeopardize the island's safety and many fought the proposal.

Shelter Island deemed the rehab center constituted a change of use from the building's long-time status as an inn. While McKinsey argued the decision, the zoning board said he would need a special permit in order to go forward.

A month of Sundays February 01, 2012 at 02:17 PM
What a strange a bizarre spot for this. Inappropiate. i dont see how it matches stats for 'single family unit" Every person there is unrelated.
tm February 01, 2012 at 02:29 PM
under NYS law you dont need to be related to be classified as living as a "family unit"
Audrey Stonemetz February 01, 2012 at 02:34 PM
I agree the location is inappropriate! It seems to me there are more locations that are out there for such a facility! Maybe near the Town facility's on Accabonac? .e
Taylor K. Vecsey (Editor) February 01, 2012 at 02:45 PM
No, you don't. In fact, the town has dealt with this type of situation once before -- with Ross School's dorm, where students live in a house together with "a dorm mother" or "dorm father."
tito February 01, 2012 at 02:48 PM
for $30,000 a month accabonac wont due for them.
tm February 01, 2012 at 02:53 PM
whats inappropriate about the location? its people living in a house.
A month of Sundays February 01, 2012 at 02:57 PM
sounds like Group Housing. IS it state funded?
bonacbill February 01, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Why is it ok for Courtney Ross to house 9-10 unrelated students with a host family and it is not ok for 9-10 unrelated Latinos to do this? Or unrelated recovering drug addicts? The town should NEVER have let Courtney Ross do this, I knew at the time it was a terrible idea. But the Town is afraid of her expensive attorneys. No one I know wants any kind of multiple family residence setting up shop in a single family neighborhood- Latino, drug addicts or spoiled little rich kids. Single family dwelling means ONE family.
Taylor K. Vecsey (Editor) February 01, 2012 at 07:53 PM
The previous comment from "theresa quigley" was deleted for several reasons -- namely, it was NOT from Deputy Supervisor Theresa Quigley.
Judith February 02, 2012 at 03:50 PM
Codes it's has already been allowed. Now the town has change it! To build a place for people get well. Shows how hard it is to trust any intuition in the world to day once again .
Elaine Jones February 02, 2012 at 03:56 PM
There is such a need for this type of facility in East Hampton and I wish them luck. Why would after a meeting with the building inspector and the town officials the people spend 2 million dollars if they thought they were doing something wrong. Sounds fishy to me.
Mo Neill February 03, 2012 at 03:23 AM
BONACBILL. YOU PROLY DON'T KNOW me, yet. . I would not mind if I lived next door to group home for people in recovery from addiction or from being spoiled rich or Latinos or the developmentally challenged, 2 already exist in our snobish town. A single family does not necessarily mean one family. I come from a family of 15 Irish Catholics. Would a family w/ 13 children & 4 Adults be less onerous in a neighborhood than a house with 5 unrelated working adults? This is a very ambiguous, capricious law motivated by a anti-Latino hysteria then rampant in the early part of past decade. I well remember the town board (then Dem majority) debating a law to restrict vehicles at one home to 5. The law was passed (by Dems & Repubs) when 2 neighbors complained about Latinos playing volley ball on Sunday afternoons. You can be sure this law has never been enfortced against non-Latinos, but has been cited by code enforcement on several occasions against Latinos. Thankfully the anti-Latino hysteria has somewhat died down now that many residents have lived next to them for years, work with them, have Latino kids socialize with theirs & worship every Sunday with them. "They" are losing the sobriquet of "other." This law is regrettable as it's aim is as divisive as it is anti-community. --mo
Steven Gaines February 03, 2012 at 11:22 AM
I agree with Elaine. This sounds as if somebody didn't want rehab competition.
Pat Mansir February 04, 2012 at 01:16 AM
A proposed facility such as this has to apply to the East Hampton Town Planning Board for their review. Pheonix did. It's the CODE. If that had happened there would be no lawsuit now. I sincerely hope that there are not people in government who are professing to have an administrative review capability.
Elaine Jones February 04, 2012 at 05:43 PM
I think the problem is, that the building inspector has too much power to make decisions alone, without review.
montauker February 04, 2012 at 11:29 PM
It seems the only person who benefits if this facility shuts down is George Benedict. It's a quiet, low-key, group home that is bringing money and work into East Hampton in the off season and in a bad economy. (Think about it, they're buying food, paying people to cook the food, cleaning the house, paying local therapists - many people benefit from this kind of place.) If it's well-run AND no one there has driving privileges, how can it cause harm? And, if it was approved, who's needling the inspector to change his mind?
montauker February 04, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Does theresa have a role in town gov't anymore?
Tina Piette February 09, 2012 at 10:18 PM
Who may occupy a "dwelling" as a "family" under the East Hampton Town Code is as follows: (1) A group of more than four unrelated persons shall be deemed to constitute a single-family for the purpose of occupying a dwelling unit only if the group is the functional equivalent of either of the two entities described in Subsection A of the definition of "family," found at § 255-1-20 of this chapter. The Board of Appeals shall determine that a group of more than four unrelated persons is a family only if it finds that: (a) The group is one which in size, function and structure resembles a traditional family unit. (b) The group will live and cook together as a single housekeeping unit. (c) The group is of a permanent nature and is neither a framework for transient or seasonal living nor merely an association or relationship which is transient or seasonal in nature. (d) All other requirements of this chapter regarding the use and occupancy of the dwelling unit in which the group resides will be met. (2) Any determination under this subsection that a particular group of persons constitutes a family shall constitute a determination as to the status of that particular group only and shall not be interpreted as authorizing any other occupancy, use or activity. Ultimately, it is up to the ZBA to determine what, and who, consitutes a "family" based on factual circumstances presented to it. Whetehr the BI is right or wrong - there is a process.
Tina Piette February 09, 2012 at 10:44 PM
That's - whether the building inspector is right or wrong . . . there is a process to challenge his or her decisions. The number "4" is based on a US Supreme Court decsion and subsequent case law. The "number" was, and probably sitll is, 5 in Southampton. Sorry I couldn't cite the whole other section, can you Taylor?
Citizens Northwest-Woods February 12, 2012 at 08:12 PM
We are a group of area residents and the activity at 26 Bull Run is not anything like a “group living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit" There has been a huge increase in traffic coming and going to the property presumably from the medical/counseling staff, chef, wait & cleaning staff. It has been reported that they can accommodate up to 16 clients at a time. There are regularly 8-10 cars parked on the property and also spillover of 2 or more cars on the nature trail and trustee road. There has been an increase in litter surrounding the property. There are frequently 2 or more people outside the property, on the nature trail, smoking cigarettes and leaving their butts on the nature trail – a fire hazard. The press has reported that they “recommend checking in for 90 days for maximum effectiveness, which runs $105,000. But for those with busy schedules, 30 days of seaside recovery runs $45,000 and 60 days costs $80,000”. This is very different from the recommended stay of 11 months that they sold the town to get their original approvals. cont'd
Citizens Northwest-Woods February 12, 2012 at 08:13 PM
cont'd In addition, their website boasts “Our Chef, working with our accredited Nutritionist and Dietician prepares portions that are ample and nourishing, yet imaginative and sophisticated.” Clearly the clientele are not cooking together as pitched to the town. This is a pop-up commercial activity that has similar services and the intensity of a small luxury hotel. They clearly need to go through the proper process and file for site plan approval and zoning board approval for a special permit. We are all subject to these zoning laws many of which are in place for our health and safety. The building department are totally within their rights to demand the proper approval process once the true nature of the activity became apparent.
Yvette Somekh February 12, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Then get rid of the group home on Marion Court. Either you can have them in Northwest Woods - or you can't. Pick one.
David Buda February 13, 2012 at 08:04 AM
Do you mean Marion Lane? Tell, tell, tell.
Yvette Somekh February 13, 2012 at 01:20 PM
There are group homes in a few spots around. Why has the town not been as 'transparent' about the nature and location of those group homes as they have for this particular one? Leave them alone. They aren't harming anyone. Except George Benedict. And the people he has influence over.
The Rev. Steven Howarth February 14, 2012 at 03:57 PM
I am the Spiritual Counselor at The Dunes, having worked at the facility since the day it opened. It has been my privilege to witness men and women finding release from the devastating and terminal disease of addiction. I am proud of the fact that, through The Dunes’ scholarship program, men and women from our community have been welcomed even though they would have been unable to afford treatment at any facility. I am encouraged as I continue to see or hear from sober and clean individuals who found their start in recovery at The Dunes. I am delighted to work with outstanding clinicians who bring both skill and love to their care of our residents. I am grateful for the opportunity to help those seeking recovery to discover and develop their own relationship with the compassionate God I know and love. I am confused by the Town’s flip-flop in its stance towards this much-need place of healing. I am confused, as well, by the allegations of increased litter and such. Honestly, I have not observed anything of the sort. Further, I would be greatly concerned if we were proving to be anything but good neighbors for care and concern for others is an expression of the spirituality that undergirds recovery. The congregation I pastor, the First Presbyterian Church of Amagansett, and I pray that this important work will be allowed to continue without harassment or threat.
Yvette Somekh February 20, 2012 at 01:23 AM
To Citizens of Northwest Woods. No you're not. You're a guy in a red BMW that owns a house next door to The Dunes. You want to sell that house and you're afraid that it's proximity to the group home might scotch the deal. If it's priced right-you'll sell it. The truth usually works better.
Tina Piette February 21, 2012 at 04:54 AM
Thank you Rev. Howarth. Again and again.
Mo Neill February 29, 2012 at 07:50 AM
bravo! bis
Mo Neill February 29, 2012 at 08:02 AM
This is big problem all over the U.S. People have tried to block group homes for the recovering addict, the developmentally disabled, the emotionally/psychologically damaged, 1/2 way houses for juvies, among others. People don't want a group home of down's syndrome adults in Shirley & have tried to block it, then close it. To no avail, the NY State Legislature, passed a law yrs ago that severely restricted residents' objections to these homes. If it was a religious run home (such as the 2 Catholic group homes for disabled in EH,) there could be no complaint. Leave them be, they do a great and needed service in our community providing a safe, nurturing, theraputic setting in a home. What's objection to people standing outside smoking? Not hiding? Chefs have residents doing all kinds of chores to prepare meals as does Phoenix House. It's called "cooking together," I live next to Bull Run & use it often--for over 30 yrs-- & yes it has been built up over the years with one huge house after the other, going up. I haven't noticed any discernable upturn in traffic. And if there was, so what? Even with their multi-million oversized McMansions, the comfortable, wealthy of Bull Run have too much time on their hands. Too bad this home is for the rich & will not serve those on SSI or SS or homeless vets, but the rich construe they are entitled, special status, like those on Bull Run, but I've seen no to traffic jam. IMO, the objections are childish, snobbish & NIMBY & mean.

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