Revered with shrine-like fervor by countless recovering alcoholics, Stepping Stones on Oak Road in Bedford Hills has also become—at least in the eyes of some unhappy residents—a neighborhood nuisance, generating traffic, noisy crowds and even overnight lodgers.
A half-dozen neighbors last week seized on an initial permit application to the town as an opportunity to air pent-up grievances with operations today at the onetime home of William Griffith Wilson, the Bill W. who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. The neighbors alternately acknowledged Stepping Stones’ historic contributions to the world of Twelve-Step self-help and criticized what they see as increased activity at 62 Oak Road, especially since the death of Wilson’s wife, Lois, in 1988. Bill W. died in 1971, 30 years after buying the Colonial Revival and writing much of AA’s enduring literature at the estate.
Ironically, the permit Stepping Stones is seeking would give the philanthropic foundation a chance to mollify some critics. As the foundation’s attorney, Whitney W. Singleton of Mount Kisco, told the town board last Wednesday, parking by visitors on the street has been a source of “commotion.” So the foundation proposes to build and screen off a 14-space off-street parking area and rework the eight-acre estate’s lone entrance and exit.
A 1983 zoning code amendment will require Stepping Stones to apply to the zoning board of appeals for a variance, the town board for a special-use permit and the planning board for site-plan approval, with public hearings along each step of that potentially rocky path. Nevertheless, some nearby neighbors lined up along a wall in town hall Wednesday night, eager already to describe—almost apologetically at times but with full-throated disdain at others—Stepping Stones’ current incarnation as both AA museum and bus-stop mecca for “tremendous” numbers of grateful adherents celebrating sobriety.
Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts, pointing out that the public hearings, with ample opportunity to be heard, are yet to come on the Stepping Stones application, asked speakers last week to keep their remarks brief. Some even did.
Richard H. Timme, who has lived across the street at 69 Oak Road since 1982, assured the board he had “no problem” with his neighbor. “I think everybody agrees Bill Wilson, Lois Wilson were great humanitarians and contributed greatly to the world we live in.” Still, he noted, visitor traffic is invariably concentrated on the weekend. “When you put that traffic into two days of the week, it’s tremendous.”
He said that when Lois Wilson was alive, Stepping Stones was very much a private home, with activities confined to perhaps one picnic a year. “The use there has escalated since we [moved in] in 1982,” he maintained, but added, “With that said, they are a great neighbor.”
His wife, Leslie, agreed, saying that from her deck she can “hear the noise and commotion” that accompany Stepping Stones visitors. “People are respectful; please don’t misunderstand,” she said. “The problem is I fear future growth.” She implored the board members to “treat this issue as if this was your back yard.”
Another neighbor, Robert W. Forman of Lily Pond Lane, challenged the foundation’s tax-exempt status, asserting that Stepping Stones is “a profit-making organization” since it sells books and rents rooms to overnight guests.
“My concern is the tax rolls,” he said. “I want to know how in god’s name . . . you call this a place that should be off the tax rolls.” Singleton, the Stepping Stones attorney, later denied the foundation rented rooms.
Diane S. Briganti called herself “the vocal neighbor” and for the next dozen minutes, referring to photos, personal logs and planning board minutes, she complained about traffic, parking and crowds at Stepping Stones. Briganti said she’s complained about nighttime AA meetings—“We’ve always had to complain to get things stopped”—and filed another complaint with the town five months ago. “I’ve lived in my house 27 years, paid hundreds of thousands in taxes and still can’t get an answer,” she charged.
Briganti also challenged Stepping Stones’ tax-exempt status, noting that it paid $20,000 in taxes as a private home in 1990. “This is the first I’m ever hearing that this property has been a philanthropy since 1941,” she said. “This is ridiculous.”
Patricia A. Bishop, a Woodfield Road resident since 1978, also drew a sharp contrast between Lois Wilson’s low-key gatherings of yesteryear, populated largely by people arriving on foot, with today’s crowds pulling up in cars and buses for an event. “It has morphed into unbelievable heights right now,” she said.”I’ve never seen such traffic.”
IN OTHER ACTION WEDNESDAY, the town board:
Reappointed Richard Lemon to the Blue Mountain Housing Development Corp., which promotes creation of affordable housing, and the Bedford Town Housing Committee, which administers middle-income housing; and Rosemary Lee to the Conservation Board, Bedford’s environmental watchdog agency, which advises on natural resources and defines town open space.
Set a public hearing for May 3 on an application by Willy Nick’s Restaurant in Katonah to renew its outdoor dining permit.
Authorized a contract with Atlantic Westchester to perform service and maintenance on the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems of town offices at 425 Cherry St.