Waterbury group home puts neighbors on edge
By ERIC BLAISDELL
Staff Writer | August 17,2013
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
This home on East Street in Waterbury is at the center of controversy over who lives there.
WATERBURY — A recently opened sober living home on East Street has come under fire by those living around it, with concerns arising about safety and zoning. Managers of the home say they are simply trying to give those who need it a place to live substance free.
Last month, Melissa Riegel-Garrett leased her childhood home at 19 East St. to Andrew Gonyea for the purposes of using it to house those looking for a safe, clean place to live while they battle addiction. Riegel-Garrett said she made the decision because her personal life had taken a turn and she was looking to live somewhere more affordable instead of the two-family house.
Gonyea, who has been managing similar homes in the Burlington area for years, was presented with the idea by Riegel-Garrett’s brother, David Riegel. Riegel, a self-described alcoholic who has been helping with the setup of the home, said he knew the benefits of what such a residence could offer since he had used similar homes to get clean himself.
However, since the home started operating with three tenants, neighbors in the area have expressed their displeasure and voiced concerns about what the home may do to their community.
Susan Mehrtens, who lives on adjacent Clover Lane, said she has not seen anything negative happening at the house but said she doubted she would since it is not in her line of sight. She said she was concerned about the house changing the character of the neighborhood if drug addicts and alcoholics start moving in.
“I support the idea of a group home. I think it’s great. I just don’t want to see it in a residential area,” she said.
In an effort to cease the operation of the home, residents including Mehrtens have filed appeals to the town’s Development Review Board challenging Waterbury Zoning Administrator Clare Rock’s July 30 decision that the house still falls under residential use. The board is to hear the appeal Sept. 5.
The neighbors argue that the house is a business, not a residence, since it will host up to 16 people and make more than $100,000 a year for the operators. They say that constitutes a change of use for its zoning.
Jan Cote, a next-door neighbor to the home who also appealed, said she once heard men arguing and then a dog fight coming from the home one night. Cote said she called police about the incident the next day but was told she had to report it while it was happening in order to elicit police assistance.
Like Mehrtens, Cote said sober houses are a good thing but added that such places need to follow certain rules and regulations like proper supervision and licensing before they can operate.
Riegel-Garrett said she was confused as to why people believed the home needs a special permit or license to operate. She said she has rented the downstairs apartment in the home for years with the rule that there be no smoking inside.
“It’s very interesting that now that we are saying no drinking and no drugging and no smoking, I don’t understand why people think there would need to be something special about this,” she said. “This literally is a place for people to live. We are renting a residential unit for the purposes of living.”
The home will offer no services for its tenants, and the only requirement is that they stay substance free.
Riegel said he plans for around eight or nine people to live in the home at most, not 16. He said the reaction from the neighbors, some of whom he has known most of his life, has been unfortunate.
“We want to be really kind, and we’ve had good relationships with these people over a period of time,” he said. “We’re not trying to disturb the neighborhood. We’re not trying to cause harm in any way, shape or form.”
As for the home being a business and making money, Riegel pointed to other homes on East Street, saying several of them are rented as well.
“As far as I can tell, people who rent their homes aren’t doing it to lose money,” Riegel said, adding that his sister is just trying to break even and possibly put money aside for maintenance on the home such as a new roof in a few years.
Even with all the controversy, Riegel stands by what he and Gonyea are trying to do.
“I believe in my heart that this is a positive thing for our neighborhood, the community, and for society as a whole,” he said. “The truth of the matter is people are suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction all over the place. There is a portion of those people that are choosing to acknowledge the situation that they are in and to try to reach out and find help for that.”
Riegel said people go into rehab or inpatient care for their addictions all the time. When they come out they are returning to the community, whether the public likes it or not.
“So we can either ignore the fact that they are here and hope they are successful, or we can possibly make some positive support systems where these people can really have an opportunity to be successful,” he said.
As for the people who may come into the home, Gonyea said there is an interview process where those already living in the home, as well as Gonyea himself, decide whether a possible addition is a good candidate. They don’t just accept anyone off the street, he said.
He said they are looking for people who may already be participating in a program to get clean, are looking for recovery and have an “attitude of change.” People who move in are asked to live there for six months and may stay for however long they want after that, provided the rest of the housemates believe the person is a good fit.