A sober living home’s request for a variance to let it continue operating on Orange Street was denied by a unanimous vote of the Manchester zoning board Wednesday night.
Into Action Sober Living operates a home for 11 women in recovery at 296 Orange St., which is in a restrictive R-2 zone. The city has issued two citations over the Orange Street property, claiming it is in ongoing violation of the city’s zoning code.
In the past, Into Action has maintained that its sober-living homes fall within the city definition of a family and require no more permits or regulatory action than that of a family dwelling.
The city’s codes define a family as “a group of individuals, whether or not related, living together in a dwelling unit in a structured relationship constituting an organized housekeeping unit.”
During a public hearing last month, Leon LaFreniere, director of Planning and Community Development, said “the determination has been that this use does not meet the definition of family.”
The determination was made based on current interpretation of the code and the way the ordinance has been historically applied in Manchester.
Dozens of speakers offered testimony at Wednesday’s public hearing on the variance request.
Kelly Gomez lives at 301 Myrtle St., which immediately abuts the property. She supported the request.
“It’s been said it’s the ‘Wild West’ there,” Gomez said. “Absolutely untrue. Since the girls have been there I absolutely feel a lot safer. I see those girls do their chores. They borrow my lawnmower to keep that property as prestigious as my property.”
Lisa Field, whose property at 302 Orange St. also directly abuts 296 Orange, objected to the request.
“Your stories are wonderful and very heartfelt, and that’s fantastic, but that’s not what this meeting is about,” Field said. “This meeting is about slipping in under the radar and into an area of Manchester where it’s not allowed.
“I would not have chosen my house if I knew I was going to live next to a sober house. That’s a reality. Anyone who pretends it doesn’t increase risk, I don’t understand them, because you know it does,” Field said.
Jonathan Gerson, co-owner of Into Action, said it’s only natural that Manchester — a leader in commerce, industry, health care and social services — would lead the way in substance abuse prevention and recovery as well.
“Some may have you believe that the open access to these services and expansion of recovery homes has somehow exacerbated the problem in Manchester, when in reality people in the city were already suffering,” Gerson said.
“Opening recovery homes was the reasonable and necessary response, and is part of the solution,” Gerson said. “The problem with a not-in-my-backyard mentality is active addiction is already lurking in our homes and our backyards, our wards and our neighborhoods, but it’s kept quiet and hidden. I can say with absolute certainty that addiction is in remission at 296 Orange St.”
Zoning Board member Jim Roy, alderman for Ward 4, said he appreciates the work being done at the sober home.
“There’s probably nobody on this board that wants to see programs like these succeed more than I do,” Roy said. “It sounds like you’re doing good work, but I got to tell you I think it’s in the wrong place. It’s not a NIMBY thing ... I’m saying it because I don’t see the hardship here in that there are zones in this community that have been designated for this exact type of thing.”
After the meeting, Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart, who urged board members to reject the variance request, said in a statement he was happy with the vote.
“I am glad that a business profiting handsomely off those struggling with addiction — while offering no clinically based or medically staffed program and with zero regulation of any kind — was not rewarded with a variance for brazenly flouting the law,” Stewart said.
Into Action Sober Living also operates a men-only sober-living home with 15 residents and three unpaid house managers on Dubuque Street.
The planning board voted earlier this month to change the designation of a triple-decker at 273 Dubuque St. to a congregate housing facility, allowing the program to operate legally.
The business received a notice of violation on Jan. 28 and Feb. 13, according to materials provided to the board.