Debate over backcountry counseling center moves to Planning and Zoning
GREENWICH — Supporters this week came decked out in green T-shirts to explain the importance of the work done by the Greenwich Center for Hope and Renewal, which is housed in Stanwich Congregational Church’s former location at 237 Taconic Road.
But despite its good work, neighbors said the faith-based, nonprofit counseling center is a business that should not have been allowed to operate in the residential area for the past decade without zoning approval.
The argument came to a head as the two sides presented their cases during a three-hour public hearing of the Planning and Zoning Commission at Town Hall on Thursday night. At issue is the center’s application for a special permit to continue its operations at the former backcountry church.
“Pastoral care and counseling for the greater Greenwich community has always been part of our DNA for as long as I can remember, and a hallmark of our backcountry church ministry,” said Neely Towe, the church’s retired pastor who served from 1987 to 2007.
To support the Stanwich Congregational Church — and the 10-year-old counseling center inspired by her legacy — Towe flew in from Jacksonville, Fla., to speak at the hearing.
When the church moved from its building at 237 Taconic Road to its new location at 202 Taconic Road, Towe said neighbors were mailed letters stating that the church would dedicate the old space to counseling. She received no replies, Towe said.
But neighbors said that sending such a letter, which some denied receiving, would not have exempted the center from seeking a special permit at that time from the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“Neither my wife nor I have received such a letter,” John Roberts, who lived on a property abutting the church for 40 years, wrote to the commission. “And if there was such a letter I would never have believed that it would be used 11 years later ... to justify operating the center for years without zoning approval.”
The Greenwich Center for Hope and Renewal operates in a residential zone that does not permit businesses. But the center said it is a nonprofit that employs only a few counselors and one psychologist.
After recent complaints from neighbors — about traffic, safety due to visits from troubled individuals, and property values, among others — the center set a six-person limit for group sessions and decreased its hours of operation. Evening groups have also been canceled, as have Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and regional conferences that had met for a total of 14 days per year.
Despite these changes since last June, neighbors said that a business in the historic neighborhood does not qualify for a special permit, especially when tax records prove it is not affiliated with SCC.
“This is a business, a very big business,” resident Catherine Parker said. “Call it faith-based, call it pastoral counseling, call it whatever you want, but it’s a business. For them, it is only business.
“This is our neighborhood,” she said. “The green shirts you see represent all the people coming into the neighborhood, not the neighbors. And our neighborhood has seen a little idea quietly grow where it has not been permitted.”
Neighbors also said that the Greenwich Center for Hope and Renewal charges market rates for counseling sessions, which run from $225 to $350 per 50 minutes, and that it should not be considered charitable services.
But the staff said they do not make as much money as neighbors suggest.
Many clients use scholarship funds — about $100,000 is raised each year for those who cannot pay — or pay for services on a sliding scale, said Heather Wright, the center’s director.
“I was one of the first therapists here,” said Steve Gilbert, “and I just wanted to give a perspective for you. I charge a standard fee of $275, but I don’t get that. I see people for free. I charge $25, and I raise funds for services.
“I do spiritual directing and mentoring of clergy in Greenwich,” he said, “and I also work with ... youth pastors in training. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I want to impress on you it’s not a job for me, it’s a ministry to help people.”
But neighbors told the Planning and Zoning Commission that the counseling center accepts payments for its services — even if the services have a religious slant.
“I do not question the noble motives of the people who work at the center,” said Steven Klausner, a member of the Northeast Greenwich Association. “I do want you to take account of the fact that we are dealing with a secular issue. And just as the people who are clergy claim that they have a higher calling, so did I when I worked — and I worked with people who were dying in an intensive care unit. And I don’t claim to have any greater insight into God or any calling, and I don’t think anyone in the clergy can actually claim any superior knowledge about a higher being.
“They may feel a calling,” he told the commission, “but they do not hold a monopoly on the validity of their testimony on the fact that a higher being called them and drove them to a higher purpose. In fact, I find it a little bit arrogant that they would use their qualifications as a member of the clergy to claim a greater insight into humanity.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission asked both the GCHR and the neighbors to each write a 10-page summary of their positions for its March 6 meeting.
Commissioners made no comments during the hearing, but will be obligated to close the case for submissions and public comment to make a decision at the March meeting.
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