GAME CHANGER: Special Town Meeting Votes Won’t Affect Current Detox Proposal As Emotions Boil Over

WILMINGTON, MA — On Saturday, December 16, Wilmington voters have the opportunity to attend a Special Town Meeting to decide where (in which zoning areas) future detox centers, hospitals, and nursing homes can be built in town.

In stunning news, however, the impetus for the petition drive which triggered the Special Town Meeting — a proposed detox center at 362 Middlesex Avenue in North Wilmington, across from Pizza Mia/Uptown Deli — will now be immune from any action taken by the voters.

Paul Kneeland, the detox center’s lead backer, submitted a subdivision plan for his proposal to the town’s Planning Department on Monday, November 27, just 19 days before the Special Town Meeting.  According to state law, Kneeland’s project is now grandfathered in under the town’s CURRENT zoning bylaws.

The public was made aware of the news earlier this week during the Finance Committee and Planning Board’s public hearing on the Special Town Meeting warrant articles.

“[The project] is now legally locked in under the zoning as it is currently described in the town’s existing zoning bylaws,” announced Planning Board Chair Mike Sorrentino. “It will be before the Planning Board on its January [2nd] agenda.”

“The filing of the preliminary subdivision plan, by state statute, has locked in the zoning at the time it was filed. Seven moths after that, they have to file a definitive subdivision plan to keep that zoning locked in,” added Planning Director Valerie Gingrich. “They will still need site plan review from the Planning Board and a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.”

Planning Board Chair Mike Sorrentino was frank with audience members as to where this divisive proposal will likely come to a head.

“The odds that the plan would be disapproved by the Planning Board are slim. The Planning Board rules on zoning bylaws and site plan review. The power will be at the Board of Appeals with the special permit,” said Sorrentino in response to a resident’s question. “When [the Planning Board] meets in January and has that discussion, we’ll be reviewing the site plan under current zoning. We don’t be ruling on a person’s business plan.”

Residents — And Selectmen — Express Anger & Disappointment With Kneeland’s “Preemptive Strike”

“Mr. Kneeland doesn’t care about this town.  He only cares about himself,” said Selectman Ed Loud, who supports a detox center, but not in the proposed location. “Kneeland owns the Channel Building and gets to use town-owned land for parking.  And then he goes and does this to that neighborhood? That’s awful…. 362 Middlesex Avenue is the wrong location for a detox center. End of story.”

“What Mr. Kneeland did was a smart political move… but it’s not over until the fat lady sings,” said Selectman Mike McCoy. “He wanted to take the wind out of people’s sails and get them discouraged about Special Town Meeting… Like the movie Network, you should be mad as hell. We’re going to fight all the way to the Board of Appeals… [Kneeland’s decision] has left a bad taste in people’s mouths.”

“I join you in my disappointment of Mr. Kneeland,” said Selectman Mike Champoux. “I hoped, after the way this all went down…, that he would have gone into a holding pattern until after the Special Town Meeting and work collaboratively with the government and the people. He didn’t do that and we can’t force his hand.”

“I don’t know why they invited us to the presentation if they were going to just push this thing forward.  I’m frustrated that a businessman did not hear the voice of the people who live in the neighborhood,” said Kelly Richards, referring to a presentation on the proposal at a September Selectmen’s meeting that was unanimously panned by area residents.  “I do wonder, as a homeowner and community member, what rights do we have?  We’re paying our taxes? We’re living in the neighborhood? What rights do we have?”

“Everyone wants a detox center,” said resident Joe Reberio. “The laws the way they are written now — where you can put one in a residential area but not in an industrial area — seem to be completely backwards. They make no sense. Why not make everyone happy by putting a bigger facility somewhere else.  Let’s stop the shenanigans.”

Resident Geoff Wood was concerned about a loss of tax revenue to the town. The facility, according to Wood, would result in more than 200 nearby homes suffering a reduction in combined property value to the tune of $19 million.

“Would the town the have to increase everyone else’s tax burdens? Cut town services? Cut town workers? Cut retired town employees’ benefits?,” wondered Wood. “Instead of losing money, let’s work together to bring in a facility that will work for everyone…. We have some of the best hospitals in the country 10 miles down the street.   Why don’t we bring these people in to advise us… Let’s bring in a first-class organization.”

(Town Manager Jeff Hull responded that it was “very unclear what effect any kind of detox center would have on home values,” noting that the studies cited are from other places across the country and each individual community’s circumstances and other potential contributing factors aren’t known.

Hull, however, seemed to inadvertently agree with another of the speaker’s points.

“If residential values in a particular location were to decrease by some margin, the other areas in town would make up the difference,” Hull said, in arguing the larger point that the detox center proposal would not decrease the town’s revenues.)

“This is not a quiet area.  30-40 trains go by there everyday.  I sleep two streets over and I can hear them rattling.  How is that conductive to a good [detox] area?,” said resident Jim Buckley. “If I was in that detox center, I’d get the hell out of there.  Please really study the area and listen for the trains.”

“What about the school bus stops? There are children that will be 50 yards from [the building],” said resident Adam Hex. “Who knows the kind of scene that’s going to unfold with folks who don’t want rehab as they’re entering the facility. Shouldn’t we protect our children?”

“This is a bad location. The facility requires 24-hour access.  There’s no buffering to the neighborhood.  There will ambulance deliveries at all hours and all sorts of deliveries necessary to keep the facility functioning,” said resident John McGrath.

“The detox center industry is a new one. It’s becoming more privatized. State laws and bylaws need to be updated,” said resident MJ Byrnes, who also pointed out that within 10 miles of the proposed location, there are already 12 detox and rehab facilities in Tewksbury, Woburn and other area communities.  She favors detox facilities in Wilmington, but only in industrial areas, which is why she’s a supporter of Article 2.

Town Officials Defend Themselves Against Accusations Of Being “In Cahoots” With Kneeland

“I feel like we’ve been manipulated,” said resident Tom MacDonald. “We didn’t know this project could be grandfathered in… It would have been fair to share these sorts of things with the residents at [previous meetings]. The town should have been more forthcoming.”

“This isn’t unusual for the developer to follow the process to protect his rights. Nothing was done on the sly,” said Planning Board Chair Michael Sorrentino. “If the Special Town Meeting would have been moved up and held sooner, the same thing probably would have happened.”

“The Town has been as forthcoming as we can be.  I find it incredible this constant drum beat of a conspiracy,” said Town Manager Jeff Hull.  “With this effort to call a Special Town Meeting, what the petitioners have done is HASTEN the development of that property because now the property owner figures that in order to preserve his rights, he must act now.”

“There was no cover up on part of the town. We just heard about the submitted plan on Monday,” continued Hull. “To suggest that the town is in cahoots with the developer is completely false.”

“I’m offended that anyone would say the town tried to manipulate them… There was no desire to keep information from anyone.  I swear to God. I would have no motivation to do that,” said Selectman Mike Champoux, who pointed out that he and Town Manager Hull had Kneeland and his team come forth and present their proposal to the community at a Selectmen’s Meeting, rather than have them go through the regular permitting process, which can sometimes be a bit “under the radar.”

Champoux, who favors working collaboratively with town departments and the community in an effort to attract Lahey Clinic or Mass General Hosptail to town to open a 200-bed detox facility, also announced his position on Article 2.

“Never, to my core, would I have supported Article 1… It’s a bad article, it’s discriminatory on its face, unethical, and immoral,” said Champoux. “I do support Article 2.  It makes sense… I had hoped it could have been done at regular Town Meeting, but it’s been moved up a few months. So be it.”

Town Counsel John Foskett also made news with an announcement of his own. He  reviewed Article 2 and believed it WOULD be approved by the state’s Attorney General.  Foskett had previously issued an opinion that Article 1 would likely NOT be approved by the AG over discrimination concerns.

Selectman McCoy Makes His Case To Amend The Zoning Bylaws

Selectman Mike McCoy, as the lead petitioner, was given several opportunities to speak during the public hearing.  He began by explaining the existing zoning bylaws in town, accompanied by a large zoning map.  McCoy noted that under current zoning, a detox center could be built in all types of residential and business zones with special permits, but not in light industrial, general industrial, or highway industrial.  He called this “crazy” and said the town “really needs” to update its zoning bylaws.

What’s turned into his preferred article — Article  2 — will expand the present definition of hospitals and nursing homes to include detox facilities and only allow future medical facilities (including hospitals, nursing homes, and detox facilities) in general industrial and highway industrial zones.  McCoy was quick to point out that the town’s current three nursing homes would be grandfathered in and remain.

“[Many residents spoken to during the petition drive] preferred a bigger, more expansive plan located in an industrial district that will accommodate both those with substance use and all residents,” said McCoy. “A majority of medical professionals told me we should put a detox facility and other medical facilities ALL UNDER ONE ROOF.”

McCoy rattled off a long list of vacant properties in industrial-zoned areas in the town, including 9 vacancies on Ballardvale Street and several on Concord Street.

Under the existing bylaws, McCoy repeatedly stressed that a detox center could be placed where Uncle Mickey’s is located in a general business area, across from the Shawsheen Elementary School, or where Greg’s Roast Beef is located in a neighborhood district area, near Silver Lake.

“Detox facilities could go there, but they can’t go in an industrial zone, that’s insane!,” said McCoy.

He also noted that the zoning bylaws, just like the town’s inhabitant bylaws, do need to be updated to keep up with the changing times.

McCoy, who serves on the Town’s Bylaw Review Committee, used a humorous example to provide this point.  According to current town law — it’s an arrest-worthy offense to take a bath or shower in your home between midnight and 6am.

McCoy says he understands the importance of the substance abuse epidemic, noting he supported the creation of the Substance Abuse Coordinator position and attended the Candlelight Vigil for substance abuse victims.

“Everybody in this room absolutely wants a detox center in the town of Wilmington. The only issue is the location.  It’s crazy that I can place one in your backyard, but can’t put it on Ballardvale Street. This needs to be changed,” said McCoy. “And I’ve never seen a movement like this. Over 3 different occasions, this group has collected a total of 1,571 signatures. And everyone involved has a heart.”

Planning Board Disapproves Article 2; Finance Committee Supports Article 2

On a close vote, the Planning Board voted 3-2 to DISAPPROVE of Article 2.  In an unanimous vote, the Finance Committee voted 7-0 to APPROVE of Article 2.

One theme in both board’s discussions was the fear of unintended consequences.  By lumping in detox facilities with nursing homes, hospitals, community health centers, sanitariums, rest homes and convalescent homes — which appears to be a necessary step to assure the Attorney General won’t find that the action discriminatory towards a protected class of citizens — none of those types of medical facilities can be built anywhere in town but in industrial-zoned areas.  Some board members wondered if, for example, a nursing home might be out of place in an industrial area, or if a medical facility would be discouraged from coming to Wilmington over concerns of having to locate in a less desirable, more isolated area.

Watch the Finance Committee / Planning Board Public Hearing, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, below:

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