47 West Market Street building in the Village of Rhinebeck.  Sarah Imboden/The Observer
47 West Market Street building in the Village of Rhinebeck. Sarah Imboden/The Observer

Owner defends mental health facility in Rhinebeck

Use of building hasn't changed since 1975, his attorney tells village ZBA; others disagree

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The property owner of 47 W. Market St. in Rhinebeck has refuted a charge that the mental health facility there is violating village zoning law.

Addressing the Village Zoning Board of Appeals and 50 residents attending the ZBA meeting Nov. 7, attorney Jeffrey Martin, representing owner Daniel Colnaghi, said, “The use of the building has not changed. It was approved as a mental health clinic in 1975. It continued to be used as a mental health clinic for almost 40 years. There’s no change there. The people that use that building are mental health providers.”

A cease-and-desist order was issued for the site in August by the village Zoning Enforcement Officer after an investigation showed a new site plan had not been filed when three nonprofit organizations took over the lease from the Dutchess County Department of Mental Health in 2011. The takeover has raised numerous complaints by neighborhood residents about the programs’ clients, traffic and loitering.

The ZBA’s concern is focused on zoning law 120.52B, which says that services provided should not be enlarged/increased in intensity and the number of employees/clients should not increase without approval. Also at issue is zoning law 120.52D, which says that a non-conforming use cannot be changed to another non-conforming use without approval.

Martin, however, said that the number of people onsite has actually decreased from when the county was involved. And, he added, the building is still managed and controlled by the county and is used for the same reasons.

In response to neighbors who have complained about the presence and behavior of the facility’s clients, he said, “We can’t manage people. They (nonprofits) have no right to supervise these people. What happens when people leave, happens.”

However, he insisted that Colnaghi is very willing to work with the community because he also lives in the community, and has been very receptive and sympathetic to residents’ complaints.

Martin then brought up a few speakers to support his points.

Margaret Hirst, who oversees clinical services for the Dutchess County Department of Mental Hygiene, said that her first assignment with the department was in 1978 at 47 West Market St. and that the facility today still provides the same services with fewer people occupying the space.

Barbara Schatz, of Hudson Valley Mental Health, one of the three nonprofits, also said her organization, which deals with mental health issues, is providing the same services as the county did in the past.

Board member Ward Stanley then chimed in, “Not at the same site.”

The board noted that the substance abuse outpatient program provided by Lexington, another nonprofit, used to be at Northern Dutchess Hospital before 2011.

Bob Cancellaro, the operations manager for Lexington, noted, “The operative word is recovery. We are the Lexington Center for Recovery. We treat people who are in recovery.”

He added, “The people that we serve in Rhinebeck reside in and around this community. They reside in Rhinebeck. They reside in Hyde Park. They reside in Red Hook, Tivoli, Stanfordville, Clinton Corners, and Pine Plains.”

Jim DeStefano, of Occupations, a nonprofit that offers mental health programs, echoed his thoughts. “We are here. We are part of your community,” he said. “We really want to be good neighbors. These are your children. These are your neighbors.”

When the meeting opened for public comment, a lot of emotion spilled out.

Michael Ghee of 15 Oak St., next door to the facility, said he has lived there for 28 years and never had issues with the facility until it changed hands. His issues include what he said was drug use and distribution in plain sight, Fed-Ex packages being stolen from his property, and noise. This year alone, he added, there have been 41 calls to the police about the facility.

Chris Chestney of 51 W. Market St. said daily traffic is now overwhelmed by the taxis that are paid for by Medicaid and by other forms of transportations, compared to the group home transportation that was provided when the county ran the place.

Three neighborhood residents spoke of personal fears.

Kitty Ghee called the programs’ clients “a substantial safety risk to this community.” Kathy Brisee said she won’t walk by the facility during the day because she feels uncomfortable. And Sharon Rushton, a social worker, said she feels unsafe in her own home.

Other speakers supported the facility’s services.

One man, who grew up in Rhinebeck, said he is a client of one mental health program because of complications he still has after a severe mountain bike accident left him in a coma for five weeks. He said “Everybody’s gotta have an understanding. There are people who need guidance.”

One woman, a Rhinebeck resident, said she has a foster daughter who is in one of the mental health programs and said the program has greatly improved her daughter’s life. She added that in the past, the government “warehoused” the mentally ill but these programs give people a chance to rehabilitate and function as a citizen.

Rev. William Starkweather, pastor of the Third Evangelical Lutheran Church, noted that his church houses 12-step programs. He said that there are two issues to be addressed. The first is zoning, and the second is the “demonization” of the mentally ill and those with substance addictions.

“People don’t choose to be addicted. It happens,” he said.

His words brought a round of applause.

Bob Fennell, the former village ZEO who filed the order in August, ended the public forum by bringing the issue back to zoning. The facility, he said, has had a change in non-conforming use, a change in volume, and a change in character.

“The point is the landlord went against the zoning laws from the evidence that we’ve heard. That seems to be the case and we’ve got to straighten that out. It’s just a matter of zoning,” ZBA member Ward Stanley added.

The ZBA board was unable to reach a conclusion at that time, and plans to readdress the issues again. As of Nov. 15, the topic was on the agenda for the ZBA meeting on Nov. 21 at 7:15pm. But the planning office has also said that it could be moved to another date if all the parties are not ready by then.

“We’ll be deliberating on this, I suspect, for a while,” board member Colton Johnson said.

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