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Hillsdale Board Questions Tenant Selection For Sober Living Home

An applicant plans to rent space to recovering addicts in a Magnolia Avenue home.

The Hillsdale Planning Board began hearing a controversial application Tuesday for a sober living home on Magnolia Avenue near George G. White Middle School.

The plan calls for the upper three-bedroom portion of a two-family home to be rented out to as many as four "professional" men age 30 or older and recovering from addiction, according to Donna Lally, the applicant and homeowner.

"They're there for mutual support in early sobriety," Lally said.

There is already one resident, who has lived there for about 10 months without any problems, she said.

A key issue in the application will be how the board decides to interpret the word "family" under the borough ordinance, according to Allen Bell, the applicant's attorney. Bell said that the men living together would count as one family because they would share chores, common areas and likely spend time together. Borough ordinance defines "family" as "one or more persons occupying the premises and living as a single housekeeping unit."

In case the board decides that the residents do not count as a family under the definition, the applicant has also applied for a use variance. Bell asked that the board vote on the two issues separately.

Dozens of residents attended the meeting Tuesday to learn about the plan. Hundreds previously signed a petition opposing it. Magnolia Avenue resident Matthew Scozzafava said a group of residents had met and attempted to organize themselves ahead of time to "avoid chaos" during the hearings.

"We'd like to get a better idea of who the residents are, or may be," Scozzafava said.

Board members shared the concern, asking for details about how residents would be screened and the kinds of agreements they would have to sign to live in the home.

Lally said that all of the residents would have already completed rehab programs and would be recommended to her through various professional organizations in which she holds membership.

To screen the residents, Lally said she would conduct interviews with the man and family members, doctors and others who have helped with treatment so far. She would also check online to see if she could find any criminal records, but had not planned to have a formal background check done. Lally said she would be willing to hire an agency to perform the background checks.

"I'm looking for people who are committed to long-term sobriety," Lally said.

Board members also questioned Lally's ability to help the residents, as she does not hold any professional certification in the field. 

Lally said the issue is personal for her. There are four recovering alcoholics in Lally's family, including herself — sober for nine years. Her son also died from an overdose a few years ago, she said.

"I have years of experience," Lally said.

Board members asked that Lally and Bell prepare more specific details about how residents will be picked and what agreements they will be held to for the next hearing.

The hearing will continue at the board's April 10 meeting at 7:30 p.m. in Borough Hall.

Have a question or news tip? Contact editor Jim Leggate at Jim.Leggate@patch.com, or find us on Facebook and Twitter. For news straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

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