WILMINGTON, MA – After more than 5 hours of discussion on Wednesday night, the Wilmington Board of Appeals voted 3-2 to continue its hearing on the special permit request for a proposed drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility at 362 Middlesex Avenue.
Board members will hold a specially scheduled meeting on Wednesday, January 16 to finish its deliberation and take a final vote, 11 months after the request first appeared before them.
Location, Location, Location and Safety, Safety, Safety
The 48-bed facility would host 2 programs inside of it– a 12-bed acute care facility (more commonly referred to as “a detox unit”) and 32 beds for transitional care. A typical detox stay is 3 to 7 days, generally 4 for alcohol and 7 for opiates. The transitional care allows patients to remain stable and recuperate while waiting to enter their next level of care, like a halfway house, and serves as a “bridge” between detoxification and their next step on the road to recovery.
While recognizing the need for such a facility in town, board members expressed some concern over the facility’s potential safety risks in its proposed location.
“We’re concerned about the location and its close proximity to all that’s dear to us – our children, our neighborhoods,” said member Thomas Siracusa, mentioning the fact that kids wait at school bus stops near the facility. “We want assurances that families will be safe; that this won’t become an out-of-control situation. This is where folks live and raise their children.”
“If a patient decides to leave against our advice, we will still provide them transportation to the nearest public transportation or to some place where they will be safe,” explained program director Ken Mayer, who stressed a patient wouldn’t leave unescorted. “Patients won’t be walking out the door and down the street.”
In response to a board member’s question, Mayer estimated that, in his experience, 99% of patients leaving the program early will take the transportation offered by the facility, while 1% won’t. Mayer conceded that this 1% could pose a threat to themselves and others, “but just like any other citizen.”
Chairman Dan Veerman asked it local authorities could be notified when a patient voluntarily leaves early.
“If they leave at risk, the police will be contacted,” responded Mayer. “I will sign a contract. I’ve done this at other facilities. We will have relationship with the Wilmington Police Department. If someone leaves out facility and is at risk, we will notify them.”
Several hundred residents crammed into the Town Hall Auditorium durign the meeting. More than 20 residents rose to speak in opposition to the proposal, with safety concerns a common theme among many of the arguments.
“Patients who are not fully rehabilitated may leave the facility whenever they want, all hours of the day or night, and wouldn’t be allowed re-entry,” stressed abutter Kim McNeely. “There are no safeguards for abutters… the Town Manager has said there’s a grave need for a fire substation in North Wilmington. This facility will strain our emergency responders, who are already stretched too thin.”
“When [Mr. Mayer] was asked how many other facilities like this he’s come across that directly abut a residential neighborhood in his 46 years of experience, his answer was 3. Just 3 in 46 years, I wonder why that is?,” McNeely asked rhetorically. “I love my neighborhood and I love my neighbors, but I love my family more and won’t stay will all the stress and anxiety that will come along with this proposed development.”
“We moved here about a year ago. We were in our house just six days and then this thing was proposed,” added Kim’s husband Shane. “[This facility] is going to be chasing people of the neighborhood. If this place goes in, we’re out of here. You’re going to see a mass exodus of people in the Shady Lane area.”
“This facility would present a danger to the health and wellness of my family and home. It would impact our quality of life and have a significant impact on our property value,” said abutter MJ Byrnes. “Please do not force this on my family… It’s better served in an industrial location… You’re placing the project’s external problems on our back… There’s no condition this board can order to change the fundamental effect this intense use will have on my family. The petitioner can’t mitigate what it will take away from what the neighborhood.”
“You have a duty to protect the well-being and safety of its inhabitants,” Selectman Mike McCoy reminded the board. “We all have hearts and recognize this is a nationwide epidemic. I support a facility like this, but the one question we keep coming back to is LOCATION… I’d be the first line to support a 200-bed facility on Ballardvale Street.”
“The likelihood that [a patient leaving early] would accept a ride from someone they want to get away from is pretty low. There’s so many red flags associated with this proposal,” said Shady Lane resident Jenny Charbonnier, who held up a photo of her children. “I’m begging you. This is my family – my two little girls. This is our home. Please, this project is not in harmony with our neighborhood. There are many safety concerns… I should be able to take my girls outside to play.”
“Everything I’ve read suggests that bringing in a transient population brings with it more crime, robberies, and panhandling,” added Oakdale Road resident Bill Horan.
Shady Lane Drive resident Kelly Richards read some alarming 1-star and 2-star reviews of the Stoughton facility of which Mayer is associated, highlighting some safety gaffes.
“This is not harmonious to the neighborhood… There’s no other 24/7 facility like this next to residents anywhere in Wilmington,” added Richards. “All the benefit will fall on Kneeland and all the harm will fall on the residents.”
Richards reminded the board of what Kneeland purportedly said during a meeting at the Public Safety Building with concerned citizens – “When patients leave, it will be the Wilmington Police’s problem.”
“Wilmington is turning into a damn city and it’s real sickening,” one emotional resident said as she held photos up of her grandchildren. “It’s not even safe to let your children go outside and play.”
“We’re talking about 4,500-5,000 people who will rotate through this neighborhood throughout the year,” said Geoff Wood. “There are no safeguards… The town needs it, but just not here. It’s just too dangerous for this neighborhood.”
“Building a detox facility near any residential area is not a good idea for the patients or the abutters. I sat through one year of meetings – they’ve never addressed the safety of the abutters,” said neighbor Jim Buckley, who then hands each board member a commuter rail schedule. “This is not a quiet location. Patients will be subjected to noise levels from the train starting at 5:36am…. 23 trains are coming and going by this detox center each day. I hear them and I’m a block away.”
“Are we really going to jeopardize people in this neighborhood, especially when there’s vast amounts of property already available in Wilmington,” echoed Jackie Reberio. “If 1% refuses a ride, that would be 4 a month. That’s a lot for our neighborhood.”
Abutter Joe Byrnes, a 32-year police officer, suggested police in Wilmington will be burdened by the problems that will be created by the facility.
“And he doesn’t care, it’s a cash cow for him,” said Byrnes, pointing to developer Paul Kneeland, sitting in the audience.
Applicant Agrees To A 24/7 Security Guard Position
After the public comments ended for the night, Board member Anthony Barletta announced that one of his conditions for approval would be the addition of a security guard, which the proponents initially said was unnecessary.
After a “hallway conversation” with his client, Attorney Mark Bobrowski announced that the project would add a trained 24/7 security guard position (in three, 8-hour shifts each day). He noted, however, that the guard cannot carry a weapon in the facility, per state law.
Town Counsel Jonathan Silverstein, of KP Law, also suggested the board also ask Police Chief Michael Begonis to confer with the chiefs in other towns that have similar to facilities and to discuss what safety measures have been put in place.
Town Manager Jeff Hull, who was in the audience, said he would ask the Chief to report back to the Board of Appeals at its next meeting.
Barbowski noted facilities like the one proposed for North Wilmington currently exist in Haverhill, Stoughton, Danvers, Belmont, Falmouth, and Georgetown.
The Vote Not To Vote
Members Ray Lepore, Anthony Siracusa, and Dan Veerman expressed a willingness to cast their votes at the end of deliberations, but member Anthony Barletta wanted more information and Jacquelyn Santini wanted more time to process the information she received at the meeting.
“We’ve got a lot of information, but we don’t actually have anything in writing about what they will be running. Shouldn’t we have something that describes that?,” said Barletta. “Whether I vote for it or against it, the motion needs to have that information in it. Without documents from the applicants, we’re tasked will writing it all ourselves.”
Bobrowski said he would provide the board with the project’s application that was submitted to the state, which spells out its program and the answers to Barletta’s questions and request for a narrative explanation.
While Veerman was ready to vote, in deference to his two colleagues who were not, he voted with them – 3 to 2 – to continue the matter to Wednesday, January 16. Lepore and Siracusa voted against the continuance, while Veerman, Barletta and Santini voted in favor.
During the board’s deliberations, Veerman appeared to be showing signals of support for the project.
“Not one town department has raised an issue with this project. It’s been approved by everybody… Every single approving authority has said it’s OK. Not one single Town of Wilmington administrator has a problem with this project,” said Veerman, earlier nothing that the Town Engineer and DPW Director were satisfied with the project and the Planning Board and Board of Health approved the project, or elements of it, which fall under their purviews.
Veerman also got a concession that qualifying Wilmington residents would receive preference when a bed opens up.
Lepore and Siracusa, meanwhile, came across as critical and skeptical in their questioning of the applicant, both on Wednesday night and during the original meeting in February.
Lepore expressed concern over the increase in service calls that the project would generate for Wilmington public safety. (Maher did note that the facility would contract with a private ambulance company.) Lepore also questioned the traffic study’s data and was frustrated that the traffic consultant and program director were unable to provide an answer as to how many patients the facility would house on an annual basis. Lepore also wanted to know why the board hadn’t received an updated building design in 10 months. (Ben Osgood, the project engineer, responded that the only changes to the building were minor and involved the patios.)
At one point, Veerman turned to Lepore all told him “this isn’t a trial,” when Lepore asked the applicant a series of yes-or-no questions without an opportunity for explanation or follow-up.
For the special permit to be granted, the applicant can receive up to only 1 NO vote.
Oh, By The Way, A Group Of Abutters & Neighbors Are Suing The Planning Board
During public comments, it was revealed that a lawsuit was recently filed in land court by a group of abutters and neighbors challenging the Planning Board’s subdivision approval of the project.
The argument(s) in the lawsuit aren’t yet known to Wilmington Apple, but several speakers questioned whether a “detox facility” should even allowed as an acceptable use in the general business district when it’s not explicitly listed in the zoning bylaws and instead is being “lumped together” with “nursing homes” and “convalescent homes.”
At last month’s Planning Board Meeting, a group of residents submitted a letter that argued the project’s definitive subdivision plan did not meet the criteria established under the town’s rules and regulations, which list 22 items that the plan must contain. As a result of not submitting a complete definitive subdivision plan within 7 months of the preliminary subdivision plan, the group contended the zoning freeze was not preserved.
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