ST. ALBANS TOWN — Thursday night, representatives of the Howard Center substance abuse outpatient program made their case to the St. Albans Town Development Review Board. They sought conditional use approval for social services and move to a larger location on Sheldon Road.
The property is the Advantage Rental building, owned by Todd and Gyneth Thomas.
Adjacent landowners expressed their fears and objections. Among them was Chad Hale, owner of Back Country Sports gun shop, and Philip Condon, of Holiday House.
This is Howard Center’s second attempt in seven months to find a new home for its operations due to a recent doubling in the clients it serves. In December 2014, the treatment facility applied to the DRB to move from its location at 172 Fairfield St. to 20 Mapleville Depot, owned by Clancy Properties, LLC. Adjacent business owners near that Route 104 site raised concerns about safety, appearance and appropriateness. The application was denied by the DRB in a 5-0 decision.
Last night, in addition to Howard Center and their would-be neighbors on Sheldon Road, several who have had first-hand dealings with addiction. People in recovery, a Vermont Department of Health employee, and a retired doctor explained the importance of finding a home for the Howard Center and services it provides to Franklin County.
“The addiction problem is growing, absolutely,” said Melissa Lussier, of Turning Point, who is in long-term recovery from opiate addiction through Howard Center. “Why would we want to stifle the solution?”
Reasons to move
Howard Center clinical director Ed Williamson gave a brief overview of the services the facility has provided since it opened 15 years ago. In addition to conducting outpatient individual and group counseling, 12-step programs, an intensive outpatient program (IOP) and referrals to other types of treatment, Howard Center provides detox beds.
Regular hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The detox program runs overnight.
“[It] is for individuals which are inebriated in some way – usually, mostly alcohol,” said Williamson. “They’ve gotten in trouble somehow in town, and they need a place to dry out. They sleep it off.”
He added, “It’s a fully supervised program.”
Williamson said the clientele has grown dramatically over the past several years. “We’ve significantly outgrown [our space],” he said.
Currently, the facility – having nine clinicians, three administrative employees and three overnight-detox monitors – operates in about 3,000 square feet. The proposed location at 748 Sheldon Rd., located just outside of St. Albans City limits on Route 105, has 6,500 square feet.
According to Howard Center financial manager Karen Moynihan, a lease is currently being negotiated with a potential lease-to-own option.
DRB vice chair Jeff Jewett asked whether there had ever been a problem with client at the current location.
“There are none that I’ve ever known of,” said Williamson. “We’ve never had a complaint.”
Despite the lack of previous problems, the Howard Center was met with a number of concerns from the Sheldon Road location’s abutting landowners.
Hale was the first to speak up. “Few concerns, being a gun shop,” he said. “I’m a little bit concerned with theft – it could be catastrophic.”
He added, “I have a couple of female employees that are concerned.”
Hale said he’s noticed larger groups of people standing outside Howard Center at its current location, and that he’s not big on the idea of loitering.
“It doesn’t look good for business for me,” he said.
People walking down the road, too – since there are no sidewalks on Sheldon Road – was also an issue Hale raised.
“I’ve got another family that lives on the place that’s got kids,” he said. “If anything ever happened with a break-in and with someone you were treating, it would be bad news for me … and the nearby community.”
Condon gave a long list of his concerns pertaining to the nursing home in the area. They included the potential for people smoking outside the building, breaking into the unsecured nursing homes to steal drugs, how much parking is available on the property, whether the water and sewer services were adequate, and the affect on the future of the Sheldon Road area.
“My concern is, this service could grow exponentially,” said Condon. “I have a lot of concerns about today, but I have far more concerns [about the future]. The drug use in this country is growing exponentially.”
He added, “It’s going to change the whole look of the Sheldon Road.”
Williamson, Moynihan and Howard Center manager Pam Hansen addressed the questions voiced.
The concerns regarding crime and theft, said Williamson, may be valid, but are not based in fact.
“They tend to follow the rules,” he said.
Moynihan said security has never been a problem at Howard Center’s current location, which is across from Northwestern Medical Center, nearby doctor’s offices and the small shopping center at the intersection of Route 36 and 104.
“We haven’t had any problems to date,” she said.
Moynihan added, “These are people who live in the community who go to doctors’ offices and go to the bank and go to the grocery story.”
As to the physical plants, Williamson said Cross Consulting had inspected the septic system and drilled water well, and a new pump was the only expected change.
“Other than that, it was supposed to be adequate,” said Moynihan. Howard Center is in the midst of applying for a wastewater upgrade permit.
Parking won’t be an issue, either, since the Howard Center currently makes do with just 17 spots.
“We looked at the parking and its actually larger than the parking spaces we have right now,” said Moynihan. “We feel it’s sufficient.”
This is partly because most people utilizing Howard Center get a ride there with an acquaintance or by public transit. According to a recent survey, Hansen said just seven percent of the 800 to 900 people that Howard Center serves walk to their appointments.
As for the smoking and loitering, Williamson said that smoking is no longer allowed on the premises in accordance with a new Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs rule – the ADAP is Howard Center’s funding source through the Vermont Department of Health.
And, people have to stay on the property during treatment – they can’t walk down the road to smoke.
Other people outside are usually just taking a breather during counseling sessions.
“There’s guidelines for the groups and the individuals and they follow the guidelines and policies we have,” Moynihan. “They usually wait in the waiting room for their appointment. It’s like [any other] doctor’s office.”
The end goal
Several others spoke up near the end of the DRB meeting to clarify why Howard Center was moving: to increase capacity for substance abuse treatment.
“I understand the concerns,” said now-retired Dr. Fred Holmes, who worked in concert with the Howard Center in the past. “[But] I don’t think this will have an adverse effect on this part of town.”
In reference to his experience working with people in recovery from addiction, Holmes added, “Our relationships were respectful, because they were looking for something the Howard Center offered that they wouldn’t find anywhere else.”
Mary Pickener, the Dept. of Health St. Albans regional prevention consultant, pointed out how much need there is in the community for Howard Center.
“The opportunity for the Howard Center to grow, to reach a capacity to meet the need of this community, is incredibly important,” she said. “Our addiction issue is everyone’s issue. Our recovery issue is everyone’s issue. Howard Center is a huge part of that recovery.”
The DRB expected to make a decision on Howard Center’s application during its deliberative session, the outcome of which should be known next week.