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.