Planned Parenthood of Connecticut took steps as early as Dec. 20 of last year to ensure it would be able operate an office complex and abortion clinic in a building it will likely soon purchase at 345 Whitney Ave., documents obtained from the City Plan Department and Board of Zoning Appeals show.
Because of a unique zoning variance dating back to 1973, Planned Parenthood would be able to open and operate a clinic and several offices, despite the primarily residential designation of the area surrounding the property, and despite opposition from area residents.
The building lies adjacent to Science Hill — a quarter mile northeast of the Kline Biology Tower — in an affluent residential community near Lawrence Street and Whitney Avenue. Frank Gargiulo, the Livable City Initiative’s zoning administrator, said the area is one of the most restrictively zoned residential districts in the city.
In initiating the process of obtaining city approval so early and so quietly, Planned Parenthood effectively cut residents’ ability to protest the impending installation of the facility to “near zero,” said Phillip Bolduc, the City Plan Department’s zoning director.
Residents of the area, which borders the St. Ronan and East Rock neighborhoods, had mixed reactions to the news that Planned Parenthood had made such progress in three months.
Eugene Peck, who lives on Lawrence Street with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, said he was surprised and dismayed.
“The process has gone that far?” he said. “I was not aware. I don’t think this is an appropriate use in a residential area. We lived near a [Planned Parenthood] clinic in Brookline, [Mass.], and there were daily protests and a man was even shot there. You don’t want to have to explain to children why people are outside protesting.”
The family planning organization currently owns two buildings in New Haven — its state headquarters at 129 Whitney Ave. and a clinic at 50 Fitch St. — and is looking to consolidate the two operations at 345 Whitney.
The move would merely be a shift from one place to another within the same neighborhood, said Judy Tabar, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut.
“We’re moving up the street,” she said. “We’ve been good neighbors for 40 years already, and we will continue to be. We will continue to serve the community.”
Other residents did not feel as strongly as Peck.
Jane Edelstein, another resident and co-captain of Block Watch, the neighborhood’s community association, said she will not comment until she meets with representatives from Planned Parenthood.
“I am not forming any opinion until we meet in April face to face,” she said.
Despite what the Yale Daily News reported Friday, Yale art history professor Vincent Scully, who maintains a residence on Lawrence Street, said Sunday he does not object to the planned clinic.
“I’m not worried at all,” he said from Miami, where he is currently living. “We’ve never had bad problems in Connecticut.”
Unlike in parts of the Midwest, where violent anti-abortion protests have drawn national media attention, Connecticut has not suffered a similar history of violence at abortion clinics.
In January 2000, several Connecticut clinics received hoax letters claiming the recipients had been exposed to the deadly anthrax bacteria.
Connecticut is a strong abortion-rights state. According to a report in the Hartford Courant, the vast majority of Connecticut residents support unfettered access to abortions.
Tabar said abortions — which, under the proposal, Planned Parenthood would perform at the clinic two to three mornings a week — are only a small part of the services the organization provides.
“Our primary focus is on preventing unwanted pregnancies before they happen so that we rarely have to recommend abortion,” she said.
Of all patient visits to Planned Parenthood, only 5 percent result in referrals for abortion services, she said.
Planned Parenthood of the Connecticut maintains 18 health care clinics in the state, but only four of those are equipped to offer abortion services.
Planned Parenthood’s serious interest in the property appears to date back to mid-December of last year, according to documents obtained by the Yale Daily News from the City Plan Department.
On Dec. 20, Carolyn W. Kone, an attorney for Planned Parenthood, sent the City Plan Department a 12-page request for an evaluation of their plan to establish the clinic.
In requesting the evaluation, Planned Parenthood was merely doing what thousands of existing and potential New Haven land owners do every year — making sure its plans conform with the zoning regulations in effect on the property.
What distinguished Planned Parenthood’s request from the hundreds received every year by the city was its length, extensive research and complexity, said Gargiulo of the Livable City Initiative.
“This is unusual,” he said. “They asked a lot of questions. — I’m sure they asked so many questions because they intended to buy the property.”
Bolduc, who issued the certificate, said the complexity and length of Planned Parenthood’s request suggested that “Planned Parenthood must be close to buying the property.”
Kone was in Costa Rica over the weekend and could not be reached for comment.
While Planned Parenthood was fully within the law in requesting the evaluation, it has not yet issued a public notice, which the city recommends to property buyers so they can protect their investment.
Tabar said she did not believe any notice has been issued.
Most residents read about the possible purchase and opening of the clinic near their homes in an unsigned letter they received in mid-March from Robert Henderson, a former high-ranking Planned Parenthood official.
“It’s unfortunate that they had to learn about our interest through that letter,” she said. “The letter certainly precipitated the conversation sometime earlier than we had expected.”
Tabar said the primary reason that Planned Parenthood did not contact residents was because the building’s current owner, the North Carolina-based Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society, asked the family planning organization not to do so.
“The owner had a strong desire that we not talk with anyone until we were further along in the process,” Tabar said.
Norman Fineberg, an attorney representing Sigma Xi, would not comment on whether Planned Parenthood was close to buying the property.
“We have several interested parties,” he said. “We will not comment on any party until we have a contract.”
But Tabar, Planned Parenthood’s president, said the organization intended to communicate with residents throughout the process.
“It was our intention to talk with neighbors all along,” she said. “We want to be good neighbors, and we are going to meet with residents soon.”
Planned Parenthood is sending a representative to an April 10 meeting of the Block Watch.
The variance, which the previous owner, Blue Cross of Connecticut, obtained in 1973, “effectively re-zoned” the 345 Whitney parcel into a commercial property lying in the middle of a residential zone, Gargiulo said.
“It’s one of the broadest variances I’ve ever seen,” Bolduc said. “They can basically do whatever they want with the property.” He added that today’s zoning board would “never” issue such a variance.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the original issuing of the variance, there is very little residents can do to challenge Planned Parenthood’s right to buy the property and open the clinic.