CT Town's Denial of Zoning Permit Discriminated Against Persons with Disabilities, Court Rules

Affiliate: ACLU of Connecticut
January 24, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW LONDON, CT — In a case brought by the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, a federal district court today ruled that city officials had intentionally discriminated against a non-profit agency that serves persons with psychiatric disabilities when it denied the group a zoning permit to move to a new location.

“This is a crucial decision protecting the rights of persons with psychiatric disabilities to live independently in the community,” said Philip Tegeler, Legal Director of the CCLU. “The court has sent a clear message to Connecticut towns that they must respect their legal obligation to make reasonable zoning accommodations to people with psychiatric disabilities and the agencies that help them.”

The lawsuit, First Step, Inc v. City of New London, was filed by the CCLU on behalf of First Step Inc.– a nonprofit agency that provides vocational and educational training to persons with psychiatric disabilities in the New London area. The case was filed in federal district court in Bridgeport.

According to the CCLU lawsuit, First Step, Inc., which is currently located on Green Street in downtown New London, had planned to purchase and rehabilitate a vacant building on Truman Street, which formerly housed a Department of Motor Vehicles branch office. But the zoning board turned down the agency’s request in late July 2002 after four lengthy public hearings.

In his ruling, Judge Stefan Underhill found that the traffic, safety, and parking reasons put forth by the New London Planning and Zoning Commission to justify its rejection of First Step’s special permit application were pretexts and that the real reason for the decision was intentional discrimination.

Judge Underhill also called the Commission’s contention that the location was not a proper site for the intended use “a thinly veiled adoption of the community’s prejudice against the mentally ill.” Because the accommodations needed to allow First Step to move the property were reasonable and did not impose undue financial or administrative burdens on the City, New London failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws when it rejected First Step’s application, Judge Underhill found.

“We are ecstatic with the judge’s decision,” said Terri Keyes, Executive Director of First Step, Inc. “First Step has struggled for years to overcome community opposition and move to a facility that will allow us to better serve our clients. We look forward to working with the neighbors and the City as we rehabilitate this building, and we believe that everyone will see what good neighbors First Step and our clients really are.”

One of the central tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act — originally sponsored by former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut — is that persons with disabilities should be given access to services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individuals with disabilities. First Step’s mission of providing persons with psychiatric disabilities with the support they need to live independently and participate fully in society is part of a larger effort to realize the promise of the ADA, said Tegeler of the CCLU.

The lawsuit was filed by the CCLU on behalf of First Step and by the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, a legal advocacy organization for persons with psychiatric disabilities, on behalf of First Step’s clients.

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