Critical housing need, stigma clash at Manchester ZBA meeting

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manchester ZBA
Manchester Zoning Board members weigh in on a variance request by Dismas Home during the Jan. 11 meeting. Image/MPTV

MANCHESTER, NH – A critical need for housing for previously incarcerated women transitioning from recovery hit a hard wall of “not in my backyard” in a fractious meeting of the Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting Thursday night.

The ZBA approved the variance request for Dismas Home of New Hampshire, allowing plans to proceed for a 20-bed transitional living home, as well as the organization’s offices, at 571 Holt Ave., the former headquarters of the Daniel Webster Council Boy Scouts of America.

The 3-2 vote came after three hours of public hearing and board discussion, as increasingly agitated opponents in the audience looked on. At several points during the meeting, audience members interrupted with loud or sarcastic remarks, requiring Chair Anne Ketterer to caution them. When the variance was approved, several audience members in the crowd of about 40 shouted insults and comments at the board, which largely didn’t respond as members left the chambers. While most left, the disruption lasted for several minutes after the meeting was adjourned.

The discussion, the longest Ketterer said she’s experienced in her nearly six years on the board, highlighted the difficulty of solving the city’s housing and substance abuse crises, when pieces of the solution come head-to-head with not-in-my-backyard resistance.

Those supporting the home at the meeting stressed the critical need for this type of housing, particularly for women, and Dismas Home’s record of effectively providing it.

“This intervention is not only more cost-effective than actions that further disenfranchise people, but helps those who have fallen through the cracks return to a fulfilling productive life in their communities, which is what people are always asking for,” Vanessa Blais, a member of the Manchester Housing Alliance, said.

blais
Vanessa Blais of Manchester Housing Alliance spoke in favor of the Dismas Home during Thursday’s Zoning Board meeting. Image/MPTV

But opponents were clear – as beneficial as the program might be, they don’t want it in their neighborhood, a mix of single-family homes and large condominium developments.

Ben Adams, a Waverly Street resident, said, “Should you grant this variance, you will be benefiting people who never have and never will live in our neighborhood, at the expense of the people who do and their property rights.”

The two points of view comprised the night’s main argument – whether granting the variance would be “contrary to public interest,” one of the five criteria the ZBA must consider.

The proposed congregate care center must go before the planning board for site approval before it can be built.

The project needed a variance because it’s in an industrial zone, where congregate care isn’t permitted. The irony is that if the 2.5-acre property were in the R-SM zone that surrounds much of it, where opponents live, there’d be no need for a variance. 

“If this property had been included in that rezoning we would not be before the zoning board at all,” said Paul Chisholm, a project engineer at Keach-Nordstrom Associates, who submitted the variance application. “We’d be going before the planning board for site plan and conditional use approval.”

What is Dismas Home proposing?

Dismas Home has operated a recovery center on Fourth Street, on the West Side, since 2016. The Holt Avenue center will be a transitional home for women who have completed the 90-day program on the West Side. The women living at the Holt Avenue residence would be sober, learning life skills, and finding employment and a place to live.

The proposal is to renovate the interior of the 10,800-square-foot building with offices and living space. The women would live in two-bedroom suites with bathrooms, and have a common living area. The proposal includes 20 beds for residents, five staff offices, and conference, treatment and meeting spaces. 

“The applicant’s use will transform an aging, depreciating and unattended building and property into a well-kept, updated, fully monitored and staffed (24/7) facility, and in doing so make a largely abandoned site into a much safer one,” the application reads.

The Daniel Webster Council, which also needed a variance, occupied the building from 1982 to 2021. The council began to market the vacant property in May, and officially listed it in July for $1.3 million, a year and a half after the council’s board voted to put the property up for sale.

Dismas Home, which has been seeking space for some time, hasn’t closed on the purchase and sale, pending the variance.

Dismas Home is licensed as a level 4 treatment program. Qualifications to become a resident are “very vigorous,” Cheryll Andrews, executive director, told the board. Residents are there on a voluntary basis. “No one is forced [to be a resident], no one is mandatory. They come voluntarily and are free to go when they wish,” Andrews said.

Women between 18 and 64 who fall below the federal poverty level by 400%, are justice-involved with no violent convictions and no violent behavior during their incarceration and are a minimum 30 days sober are eligible for the program, she said.

Residents have a 9 p.m. curfew, are prohibited from using drugs and alcohol, as well as many other requirements. If they violate them, they’re out of the program.

Dismas Home on google maps
Aerial view of Dismas Home on Google maps.

Why does Dismas Home need a variance?

The lot is zoned industrial, but juts into two residential zones, with the only access through those zones. It is also bordered by Interstate 93 and an industrial zone that provides no access to the property. 

One reason for the geography of the plot is that the one next to it was rezoned to residential from industrial to make way for a condominium development.

Chisholm said, “I’ve overwhelmingly heard residents talk about compatibility. What is more compatible? Line up all the industrial uses. How many are allowed in a residential zone? Very few… This is a residential use. So, it’s hard to say from a zoning perspective that this isn’t compatible.”

What did the opponents say?

Of the 15 neighborhood residents who spoke in opposition at the meeting, most said that they support Dismas Home’s mission, but it’s not the right fit. They also said they are concerned about property values, presenting opinions from two real estate brokers that said property values would go down if Dismas Home were nearby.

Many implied that Dismas Home residents would be a danger or nuisance in the neighborhood. Some cited a car accident in which a pedestrian was seriously hurt. The person driving the car was allegedly “an addict,” with the takeaway being, apparently, the women living at Dismas Home would present a similar danger. One woman spoke about her abusive former husband, who had substance abuse issues, and how she didn’t want her children around people like that.

Residents also complained about the narrow streets, lack of sidewalks and lighting and how long it took police to respond to the accident and other issues. They frequently mentioned how they had less than a week’s notice about the meeting.

Kimberly Desire, a Hartshorn Way resident, said she is “supremely supportive and understanding of work this agency does,” and that her husband is in social work. But she said she has “grave concerns” because of children in the neighborhood and the property’s “close proximity to our child care center.”  She urged the board to give “careful consideration about the culture we hope to create here in Manchester” and suggested it be put somewhere else in the city.

Mark Cote, of Eastwood Way, said he’s “a little concerned about safety, concerned about our family,” including people “wandering the neighborhood” and “going into backyards.”

“I know that when people are struggling with addictions, there are trust issues,” he said. He also said that property values are “a big deal.”

Also speaking was Ward 6 Alderperson Crissy Kantor, who said she has received many emails and messages from constituents opposed to the variance.  

At-large Alderperson Joe Kelly Lavasseur said Dismas Home is a “business that made a business decision to go there.” He compared the potential impact to when a gas station opened on Edward J Roy Drive that “has changed the look, the feel and quality of that neighborhood and not for the better.”

manchester ZBA applicants audience
Audience members in attendance at the Jan. 11 Zoning Board of Adjustments meeting, seated behind the applicants. Image/MPTV

What did those in favor say?

Blais, of the MHA, noted that a large percentage of the chronically homeless experience mental health and substance abuse challenges. “Evidence shows supportive housing reduces use of costly systems and presents greater outcomes,” she said. It also provides support services and financial and employment literacy that vastly improves the chances of economic and employment stability.

Blais cited the lack of post-incarceration services for women in New Hampshire. “We must support programs that have shown to be successful,” she said. “We want people to get their lives in order, but we have to help them. Everyone must be part of this solution, and that means everyone. Successful communities are interdependent. And if we want to work toward a healthy and robust economy here in Manchester, we must be smart about the decisions we make.”

Kim Bock, of New Hampshire Coalition of Recovery Residences, said that only a third of recovery housing in the state is for women. It’s difficult for women in recovery to get services they need. 

“They face far, far more stigma than men do,” Bock said. “When a man goes for recovery and they take a year away from their family, they get a big pat on the back. ‘What a great job you’ve done to support your family.’ When a woman does that? ‘Wow, what a bad mother.’ Women need support.”

Melinda McDonald, a former Dismas Home resident said she is two years sober because of the program, after trying most of her adult life to get there.

“Dismas Home changed and saved my life,” she said. “I know it’s hard for people who don’t understand addiction, but if they could just give us a chance and open more houses and understand us a little better. It’s absolutely beautiful when we can change, and [Dismas Home] understands that we can change.”

“Addiction is only part of the problem,” Jewel Burke, a case manager at Dismas Home and former resident, said. “People who are addicted, and people who have mental health disorders, have nowhere to turn.” She stressed that Dismas Home’s application process requires women who are accepted to “already be in a place where they are ready to make the necessary changes in their life to be successful.”

Letitia Jackson, a single mother who is in school to become a licensed practical nurse, was momentarily overcome as she recalled how Dismas Home helped her. “I was homeless before I came here, without anywhere to go, and they opened doors for me,” she said. “I just hope y’all understand that females like us, we need somewhere to go coming out of prison and not having family members [to support us].”

Nate Lavallee said he was once in the situation the women who live at Dismas Home are. “I turned my life around,” he said. “I’m in long-term recovery, I’m a homeowner, a business owner, and I’m able to help other people on a daily basis. There is a stigma to this type of stuff, I get it… but these women, they’re not going to be out committing crimes. They’re here to change their lives.”

He said without his recovery program, he didn’t have much of a chance. “When people get out of treatment or prison, it’s kind of like, ‘All right, don’t do it again.’ And unless they have a place like Dismas Home, their chances are slim to none.”

Stephen Carey, who lives across the street from Dismas Home, wrote a letter to the board saying that in the five years he’s lived there, the home has “actively helped alert authorities in the case of mischief,” and worked to improve the neighborhood’s appearance. He said he’s an investor who’s owned property across the country, and Dismas Home as a neighbor has not hurt his home’s value.

Dismas Home representatives responded to opponents’ concerns about the residents, saying they don’t drive (they largely use Uber), they have a curfew, and the requirements for their residency are very strict.

Bock also said that New Hampshire Coalition of Recovery Residences [NH CORR] requires certified programs to meet its good neighbor police. “They have to have a policy where people are not allowed to use foul language on the property, have to keep it in as good repair as everyone else in neighborhood. If we go out and see a board rotted, we ask them to replace it or they lose certification. It’s very rigorous.”

What did the ZBA say?

Under New Hampshire law, a zoning board of adjustment has a specific framework under which they can grant a variance. The use must:

  • Not be contrary to the public interest;
  • Observe the spirit of the zoning ordinance;
  • Do “substantial justice,” meaning gain to the general public by allowing the variance must outweigh loss to the individual by not allowing it;
  • Not diminish values of surrounding properties;
  • Literal enforcement of the ordinance would result in unnecessary hardship.

Voting in favor of the variance were Ketterer, Joseph Prieto and Nick Taylor, who made the motion to approve. Voting against were Mike Simoneau and Greg Powers. Taylor is an alternate, who filled in because member Guy Guerra was not present.

The variance was approved with the conditions that any new owner can’t exceed the number of beds that Dismas Home has, and that a new owner would have to be certified by NH CORR.

The application contains a description of how the property will meet those criteria. 

Eric Kilchenstein, the attorney representing Dismas Home, said, in general, the project meets the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s definition of not being contrary to the public interest, including not altering the essential character of the property or posing a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the public. 

He added that Dismas Home “fills a pretty significant need in NH.” The use also provides a quiet, safe place that would be monitored by staff. “This is an improvement to the property.”

He said under the zoning “it could be a variety of things,” but no business has shown an interest. “It’s an island of zoned industrial surrounded by residential.”

Along with “the extraordinary need for this service,” the fact Dismas Home was looking for property, and the fact it has been vacant for so long, “we got kind of a marriage of needs,” he said.

Aside from the criteria, some ZBA members said that the stigma surrounding recovery, mental health and incarceration should not be a factor in their decision.

Powers said that some of the criminal activity cited by opponents was committed by people who weren’t in recovery. “So, people outside of recovery don’t have a monopoly on safety and good behavior.”

He said he’s had no problems living a block from a sober home and three blocks from Liberty House, a recovery home for veterans.

“To speculate on the behavior of these women, I have a problem with that,” he said. “Unless you know everyone who lives in those condos, and everyone who lives in that house and their character, and behavior, and what they’re doing in the privacy of their home, which may or may not be legal, it doesn’t seem fair to speculate about the behavior of these women who are trying to recover, and doing it in a positive way… It’s an unfair stigma in my opinion.”

Ketterer said violence that some may associate with recovery homes is not generally related to those that house women. “Each and every one of [the opponents] did say that they support the hard work of rehabilitation,” she added. “They just don’t want it in their own backyard and they’re afraid of it.”

In an initial vote, only Ketterer and Taylor were in favor. The board is required to have a majority vote to do something, either approve or deny, so that vote didn’t mean the variance was denied.

The board then tried to determine how to proceed, with two of the dissenting members – Powers and Prieto – seeking more clarification on issues.

Property value effect “is something I struggle with,” said Powers, who is a real estate broker. The applicant presented a 17-page document from Wells Appraisal that found there is no effect in neighborhoods with similar facilities, but Powers noted that there was also opposition from two brokers who weighed in with letters saying there would be. 

The public interest criteria, though, is what caused the most discussion.

“I understand what New Hampshire CORR is trying to do and I commend that,” Simoneau said. “But I also understand the neighbors. Neighborhood is what makes Manchester strong.”

dismas home on zoning map
Aerial view of Dismas Home on zoning map

Taylor said that he believes the variance meets the public interest standard. “When we talk about health, safety and welfare, I do think a lot of it is tied to the stigma versus data about what’s going on…That is being tied, I think unfairly, to some of the women who are trying to improve their welfare and get back on their feet.”

Ketterer said, “This is a residential neighborhood, and this is housing – it’s transitional housing and it’s specific – but this is a housing use, a residential use, in a residential neighborhood. Yeah, it’s run as a business, a nonprofit, but landlords have a business too, and they rent apartments, so I don’t think that that is important. 

“The public interest needs more housing, number one,” Ketterer said. “The public interest needs sober homes and places where people can get the help they need, particularly the ones that go through the rigorous standards that you have. And women need help… All of this circles back to the property is shoehorned in a residential neighborhood. And this is a residential purpose.”

She added, “I have a hard time understanding how it’s contrary to the public interest when we have a piece of property abutting a residential use.”

Prieto, though, said, “I just can’t get past some of the legitimate concerns from the public about the health, safety and welfare.” He asked the applicants to address the public interest aspect.

Chisholm responded that one view of public interest is “the immediate person who’s right there,” but asked Prieto to take a broader view. “Manchester as a whole, and the people of Manchester, and of New Hampshire, need facilities like this to improve the health, safety and welfare of the community across the city, across the state, across the country. Without these facilities, that doesn’t happen. So very generally I would have to say that this property and this project would allow that to happen.

“You’re looking at it from a very zoomed-in view,” Chisholm said. “I would say zoom out and look at it from a very broad view about how the public would actually benefit from this, and I’m talking about the public, not the neighborhood, necessarily, or their direct abutters. I mean everybody across the city needs to be considered in this criteria.”

After the vote to grant the variance, audience members made sarcastic references to “public interest.” Shouted comments included: “I’d like to see your kids watch these people walk up and down the street” and “We don’t even allow solicitors, why do we want random inmates to walk up and down our street?” and “It’s not a matter of caring value, it’s a matter of property value that I’ve spent 25 years to build up.”

One audience member approached the front of the room as the board was filing out and asked why the public only got three minutes each to speak, but the applicants had unlimited time, and could also answer questions, when the public couldn’t. 

“I don’t want to say you’re making up things, but you’re kind of winging it,” he said.

Why are the Boy Scouts selling the property?

The sale of 571 Holt Ave., as well as the Daniel Webster Council’s property in Unity, is necessary as part of the BSA’s bankruptcy proceeding as it pays a $3.5 billion lawsuit to settle sexual abuse claims. 

The council’s 275 Mica Mine Road, Unity, property is still on the market, listed for $625,000. 

While the council’s board approved listing both properties in late 2021, it had to wait until the national BSA settlement was agreed to and its Chapter 11 bankruptcy resolved. The settlement agreement was finalized in March, and the bankruptcy was settled in April. Marketing of both DWC properties began in May, with the listing made public in July.

The council had been trying to find a buyer well before the bankruptcy was settled, as part of the bankruptcy process, Kilchenstein, the attorney representing Dismas Home told the ZBA.


 

About this Author

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.