Depending on who is speaking, the matter of Make A Home Foundation’s future is either a “contentious thing” or “a very political situation.”
Anita Pettengill and her husband Dan Telesco founded Make A Home Foundation in Sandy Hook in 2010. The nonprofit organization devoted to providing free furniture and household items to veterans and any people in need grew so quickly that the couple sought out a larger space for the donations they were taking in.
In August 2011, Make A Home found a new home at 40 High Bridge Road, in an empty warehouse. “We opened our warehouse through the kindness of Mario DeVivo who gave us free rent in 2012,” said Ms Pettengill. The 56,000-square-foot warehouse consists of several “departments,” with makeshift aisles separating the items into sections that make it easier to find needed items.
“In five weeks time, we have helped 23 individuals or families get back on their feet,” Ms Pettengill said of recent outreach, with the possibility of 20 more veterans in need of assistance from Make A Home before the end of August. Those individuals or families are aided through the gifts of beds, dishes, tables, chairs, desks, lamps, electronics, and any other items that make a space a home.
Among the organizations that have worked with Make A Home are the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, the Veterans Administration, United Way Connecticut, Connecticut Department of Social Services and Developmental Services, Newtown Social Services, Abilities Beyond Disabilities, and Waterbury Probation. Recipients are never charged for any items, and Make A Home assists in delivery of items to the needy.
But since October 2011, when Make A Home was first issued a Cease and Desist order by the Town of Newtown, for debris violations and retail sales not allowed in that zone, the nonprofit and the town have been locking horns over what is and is not allowed at the 40 High Bridge property.
“We can help [those in need], but the restraints [on our business by the town] are unnecessary, un-American, and un-Newtown,” Ms Pettengill said, referring to the ongoing disagreement with the Town of Newtown that has resulted most recently in the town moving to file an injunction against Make A Home Foundation.
Not being allowed to conduct sales for ten days a month is a hardship for Make A Home. Additionally, said Ms Pettengill, the Town of Newtown is now suing the foundation for $15,000 plus fines. (According to George Benson, director of land use in Newtown, as of August 5, the town had filed for a temporary injunction, with no definitive amount specified.)
“The Town of Newtown no doubt has seen her share of tragedy,” Ms Pettengill wrote in e-mail to The Newtown Bee. “So where is the compassion for others? I see ‘we choose love’ signs all over Newtown. So where is the love for our fellow countrymen and women veterans, and all those others in need of our help?” she asked.
Mr Benson does not disagree that the foundation has provided a good and necessary service for those in need. At the heart of the issue is Make A Home’s desire to operate monthly sales to the public, though, that Ms Pettengill and Mr Telesco hope will help them move inventory, and provide income to pay for overhead. While they paid no rent for the first year, since then the lease has required a payment of $18,000 a month, plus utilities.
The nonprofit, along with volunteers, has also assisted the owner in making many upgrades to the building, according to Ms Pettengill, in order to comply with safety issues, believing that the upgrades would result in a change to zoning regulations that would allow those monthly sales.
In June 2012, Ms Pettengill told The Newtown Bee that the building had received its Certificate of Occupancy the previous month, allowing it to open to the public nine days each month.
That, however, is untrue, said Land Use Director George Benson on August 7. Make A Home did receive a Certificate of Occupancy in May 2012, but that had no bearing on use of the building as a retail outlet.
“When we moved in, the town said that they would change [the zoning regulation] to [allow] 12 sales per year for 10 consecutive days (instead of 2),” Ms Pettengill said in an August 2 e-mail to The Bee. “We were happy with that.” In conversation on August 7, Ms Pettengill appeared to retract that statement, saying, “We didn’t know when we signed the lease with Mario DeVivo that the town only allowed sales two times a year in this zone.”
“They said they would put us in for regulation change,” Mr Telesco said, August 7, and did not realize for several months that no one in the town offices was taking care of the change. “We would not have leased the space if we were not confident that the town officers would put in and make the regulation change for us.”
Ms Pettengill and Mr Telesco said they do not understand why Mr Benson would seemingly turn against them, after offering to help.
“We had three consecutive, approved sales, three months in a row [after moving into the High Bridge Road warehouse],” Ms Pettengill said, and then were ordered to hold no more.
The third sale was allowed, Mr Benson said, as a goodwill gesture, to help the organization. “They were told what they could do, from the beginning,” Mr Benson said, “and from day one, they violated the regulations with signage and sales. I told them it was not a good idea to go [into the warehouse lease] there if they were relying on income [from it]. I told them that they could apply for a zoning regulation change, they did, and P&Z refused them,” he said, referring to the Planning and Zoning board decision of March 7, 2013.
The Make A Home founders contend that it was not until Deputy Land Use Director Rob Sibley told them at the beginning of 2013 that it was they who should be applying, rather than town officials, that they applied for a zoning regulation change.
When Ms Pettengill and Mr Telesco attended the February 21, 2013, zoning board meeting, members requested a warehouse visit. Ms Pettengill said that she and Mr Telesco thought that the visit went well, and that the visitors were impressed with the operation.
Despite having evidence of hundreds of e-mails supporting Make A Home when they attended a hearing the next month regarding the zoning change, they were denied.
“‘You’re tax-exempt on the building, and Newtown cannot afford to lose the property tax on industrial property,’” Ms Pettengill said they were told. She and Mr Telesco continue to believe that it is the tax-exempt status of their business that is at the heart of the dispute, not the fact that they are selling, in addition to giving away, inventory from that site.
Ms Pettengill and Mr Telesco also deny that they have continued disallowed sales to the public since the last approved sale. “We can sell online, to members, to our staff, and to wholesalers,” and remain in keeping with allowances in the M-1 industrial zone, Mr Telesco said. Members of the public that come to the Make A Home warehouse, often discovering it through advertisements in area papers, must purchase a membership for $1 before shopping. Members are issued a membership card and number, and are entered into the database, he said.
This view of what is allowed is yet another case of misunderstanding zoning regulations for the 40 High Bridge address.
“There is no such thing as being allowed to shop as a ‘member’ in Newtown. It is still retail,” said Mr Benson, responding via e-mail to an inquiry from The Bee. “The public should not be ‘going in there’ for anything. Again, it has nothing to do with being a nonprofit; no companies can sell retail from a warehouse, without a temporary sales permit (two per year),” he reiterated.
An e-mail sent to local supporters, as well as The Newtown Bee, may confuse its readers. “WE ARE BEING SUED BY THE TOWN OF NEWTOWN FOR $15,000 plus fines AND WE HAVE TO MOVE!” the e-mail declares, in wording that may be construed to mean that it is the town requesting that Make A Home Foundation vacate the 40 High Bridge warehouse.
The town is not against Make A Home Foundation insisted Mr Benson, and he pointed out the approval of a May 15 application for temporary retail sales that was approved for the period from May 16 through May 25 of this year. That issuance was, again, he said, an effort to help out Make A Home.
Minutes from the February 21 and March 7 Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, found online, at which Ms Pettengill and Mr Telesco appeared, do seem to support their concerns that the town is opposed to a nonprofit occupying the warehouse at 40 High Bridge Road. (The minutes of February 21 posted online are incomplete, according to Mr Benson, with the entire meeting recorded and available.) “The Commission had a problem with the application because the building is in the limited industrial zone, which could be an income generator for the town. As a 5.07.190 non-profit, the town would receive nothing from them,” reads a portion of the minutes.
The only notation in the minutes of the March 7, 2013, hearing in which the Make A Home application to add to regulation 5.07.190 Temporary retail sales “A non-profit 5013c organization be allowed twelve (12) total sales per year for a maximum of ten (10) days per month” was disapproved, is this: “Mr Mulholland [committee member Robert Mulholland] was not in favor of ten days a month. Mr Spragg [Ben Spragg] suggested maintaining the building as a warehouse, opening a separate retail space. Ms Dean [Lilla Dean] wondered if the applicant considered setting up an online shopping site.”
Important conversations are not included in the minutes of the March 7 hearing, according to Ms Pettengill and Mr Telesco. Much of the discussion centered around the commission’s opinion that “Make A Home is eroding the tax base,” Mr Telesco said, asking, “How would moving to a retail space and keeping a warehouse help the tax base?” That would mean two nonprofit spaces in town not contributing to the tax base, he said.
“The decision was based on the revenue that the town was losing from the building, because it was tax-exempt, and that they needed more industrial space made available to the town,” Ms Pettengill said. It is a reason that makes no sense to her, Ms Pettengill said, because “there were many industrial empty buildings sitting around in Newtown.”
The fact that Make A Home is a nonprofit was only one consideration in determining the outcome of the hearing, said Mr Benson. “We can’t approve regulations on what is presently in the town, but have to take into account the future uses in the M-1 zone,” he said. A zone regulation change would affect all properties in an M-1 zone. “The impact of a regulation has to be assessed on a long-term basis, not on one particular property,” he continued, “or one point in time. Whether nonprofit or not, we can’t write regulations for a specific user.”
Complicating the matter for Make A Home is the inability to cover the cost of the lease, which is approximately $18,000 a month. In an August 2 e-mail to The Newtown Bee, Ms Pettengill states that although Make A Home is unable to pay rent due to a lack of revenue, “We do not have a date to leave. We plan to be out in 90 days.” Three days later, a subsequent e-mail states, “We don’t have to be out of High Bridge any date.”
However, on August 7, Scott Lavelle, property manager for 40 High Bridge Road said otherwise. According to Mr Lavelle, Make A Home has never paid any rent on the property and a significant amount is owed. An eviction is in process, he said.
“It’s a matter of can we stay here, not who is asking us [to leave],” Ms Pettengill said.
“If we get an injunction, we will have to move. It will be very costly,” Mr Telesco said. They have looked for a new space that would accommodate retail sales in the area, but have not found an affordable option. “But it would be crazy [to try to move all of the inventory]. That’s why we want to stay here,” he said.
A resolution to their problem would look like the Town of Newtown allowing them 12 sales a year, ten days at a time, said Mr Telesco. They are looking into having an attorney reapply for the zoning regulation change, believing it would be futile for either of them to reappear before the board with the same request. “Maybe then we’ll get somewhere,” he said.
A “Moving Sale” ad in the classified section of the Sunday, August 4 Danbury News Times, as well as signage outside the entrance to the warehouse the week of August 4, advertised 60 percent off of everything. The ads are needed to generate money to offset costs, Mr Telesco said, and are intended to attract members and wholesalers.
Just wholesale sales alone do not generate enough income to cover costs, he added. The money they have taken in has gone to pay staff, toward utilities, and rent, Mr Telesco said. “We need to be able to blast the sales [through advertising] and get it out to the public,” he said.
“I think we have an overwhelming majority of the town supporting us and the overwhelming support of social services,” Mr Telesco said.
Any problems with the town would go away, Mr Benson said, if Make A Home would cease selling to the public. “The can give away anything, they just can’t open the business for people to walk around, and their advertisements say nothing about giving anything away. They advertise sales,” he said. Make A Home has not honored Newtown zoning regulations, he said.