GLENS FALLS — The Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health’s homeless housing project overcame another hurdle Monday night after the Zoning Board of Appeals ruled 5-1 that it fit within the city’s zoning code.
The decision came following a lengthy public hearing, where the public spoke both in favor and against the project, and board members clarified a flurry of questions.
The 29-unit apartment building, which would include a care team to provide life coaching and some basic assistance, is planned for 47-50 Cooper St.
Fourteen units are intended for those with mental illness, six for those experiencing chronic homelessness, four for youths, four for domestic violence survivors and one unit for a family, said Stefanie DiLallo Bitter, attorney for the nonprofit organization.
The project has spurred contentious discussion over the last few months and was most recently the subject of an appeal by local businesswoman Elizabeth Miller.
Miller had her eye on the property for her business, Miller Mechanical Services, but ultimately did not purchase it before the nonprofit organization did.
Through her attorney, Nathan Hall, Miller contended that the project was not permitted in the zoning district.
Records later showed that a clerical error was made in some of the city’s tax assessment records, and an official zoning map showed a multifamily dwelling was an allowable use in the light industrial zone.
Miller and Hall also appealed on the grounds that the association’s proposal did not fit within the definition of a multifamily dwelling.
“It seems to me that they’re representing this as a multifamily dwelling, no need to look too deep at it,” Hall said. “Whereas in other forms, where it’s more convenient, they’re pushing this institutional component going forward, this care going forward, which I think is outside the multifamily dwelling.”
Board member Stephen Baratta said he lives in a multifamily apartment building that consists of senior citizens and people with disabilities. There is a support services counselor on site, and visiting nurses often attend to residents.
“I don’t see any difference between what they’re proposing and what already exists in multifamily,” Baratta said.
Hall said he could not speak about another property, and Chairman Jeff Purner turned the discussion back to the Cooper Street parcel.
Bitter said Hall and others seem to be using the word “institution,” a word not in the zoning code.
“It’s not a health-related facility,” Bitter said. “This is going to provide individuals with an opportunity to have a home, which is what a dwelling is. This facility is not locked. These occupants are there voluntarily. This apartment will provide a clean and safe and affordable home in this community for these individuals.”
John Farrell, director of facilities for the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health, said the organization has spent the past three years working on this project. Two state grants — one in the amount of $5.8 million and one in the amount of $3.4 million — are funding the project, and Farrell said a state official told him “it was possible but ill-advised” to move the apartment building location.
Farrell listed the due diligence his organization went through in getting to this point, including confirming with city code enforcement officers that the apartment building was allowed.
Farrell said “Miller’s motivation seems clearly one of coveting our property. She had been looking at the property for a number of years but failed to make the purchase. Had she purchased the property, it would not have been for sale and we would not be having this conversation.”
After Farrell and Bitter spoke, applause came from several in the audience.
The board questioned Farrell and Bitter about the project. Purner asked about the screening of residents.
Farrell said people are not required to be sober, nor are they required to seek services. Generally, Farrell said, once people do have a roof over their heads, they get help in other areas of their lives. The organization will not lease to registered sex offenders.
Bitter said monthly rent will be 30% of the person’s gross income. Residents will have to demonstrate that they can live on their own and pay rent.
Farrell likened the services on-site to those of a concierge. Staff will help residents find groceries, get transportation to appointments and connect them to appropriate services they may need. No one on staff needs a license to provide any of those services, and the apartment building will not be any kind of licensed health-care facility.
Board member Timothy Larson asked about the lease duration, but Farrell said that was still being worked out.
“This is permanent housing,” Farrell continued. “People are not made to move, not unless they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing and there’s nothing else.”
Board member Matt MacDonald was concerned that light manufacturing appeared to be favored in the city’s plans over multifamily dwellings. MacDonald said Miller “missed the boat” and “it’s a free market society,” but added that “residents are pretty heavily contested.”
Bitter said that was going off track, and Purner agreed, noting the purpose of the appeal hearing was to look at the code enforcement.
County Supervisor Jack Diamond, representing Ward 1 of Glens Falls, said residential use is discouraged, but it had to be part of the code because there were already residences there. Diamond also suggested that Baratta should recuse himself from the vote because “he seems to be very, very passionate about this project.”
Following Diamond’s speech, five members of the public spoke in favor of the apartment building. One said she thought it would “behoove the city to be more friendly to the residents” because “too many people have left.”
Phillip Underwood, a neighbor to the property, said, “If it’s allowed and it’s approved, it is what it is.”
Hall took another crack at the microphone, highlighting that 14 units would be “for individuals with, quote unquote, serious mental illness.”
Farrell said Hall’s use of the phrase “serious mental illness” was taken out of context and actually has a specific classification that refers to an individual who has had a mental illness for a year or more.
After the public hearing closed, Purner presented the resolution confirming the project was an allowable use for the site.
Steven Van Guilder said he wanted to abstain from voting.
Everyone else voted in favor, except for MacDonald.
The next step for organization officials is to take its site plan before the city Planning Board. Hall said he plans to take his case there, too. That meeting is scheduled for 4:45 p.m. on Aug. 6 in City Hall.