ZBA Strikes Domestic Violence Shelter Zoning Letter

There was a very important and very well attended Zoning Board of Appeals meeting in Milford last night. The major issue on the agenda was in regards to the domestic violence shelter that a nonprofit planned to open in Woodmont.

Basically, the ZBA struck down a letter written by assistant city planner Emmeline Harrigan in 2012 allowing the nonprofit BH Care to open a domestic violence shelter without any further zoning approvals - that is, BH Care would not have to go in front of a public board and ask to be allowed to operate in a single-family zone.

That's an important point - discussing a domestic violence shelter in public undermines its existence. The addresses of these shelters are supposed to be anonymous so abuser don't inflict further harm on their victims. So, if you go putting the address on a public agenda and all the other due diligence that goes with operating a public meeting, you're undermining that anonymity.

I haven't talked to City Attorney Jon Berchem about what the ZBA's ruling means, but I'm working on a story that will explore that angle. Does this mean that a domestic violence shelter can't operate in Milford without going before a public meeting?

Residents Silvia and Clifford Davis, Diane Stango, and a company called Real Link Holdings LLC (general manger Elvira Kovshov of Westport) brought the zoning appeal and were represented by Bridgeport attorney Charles Willinger (Willinger happens to be a Milford resident who lives along the shoreline just outside of Woodmont).

Willinger was the main speaker, going on for more than an hour with multiple points about why the shelter shouldn't be allowed in Woodmont - the main point being, though the shelter's mission is noble, we don't want it near us. Throughout his speech, Willinger kept referring to a quote from BH Care CEO Roberta Cook from one of my stories where she said the shelter "could house up to" 15 women and children. Willinger ignored that Cooke's "15"was hypothetical and conditional. He used that figure to support his arguments against the shelter throughout the night.

Willinger seemed to dally on the point that a bunch of domestic violence victims and their kids couldn't possibly have the skills or desire to add value to the neighborhood.

"[The shelter residents have] no cohesion, no commitment to the community when you're there for two weeks. You probably don't learn the names of the 14 people [in the shelter]," he said.

In the end, Willinger's characterizations of the shelter and its hypothetical number of residents went unchallenged. The ZBA voted unanimously to strike Harrigan's letter. I asked ZBA Chair Joseph Tuozzola this morning for an explanation of why the board sided with Willinger et. al. He said:

"The board listened to both sides. I'm not going to get into any details on it."

When I pressed him:

"I'm done talking to you about it."


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