READING - The Town of Reading will reportedly issue the permits required for a sober house operator to take over the former Daniels Nursing Home at 59 Middlesex Ave., according to Town Counsel Ivria Fried.
News of the legal agreement spread during Monday’s virtual Annual Town Meeting, when the Select Board asked assembly participants to indefintely postpone a warrant article that sought to appropriate funds to cover the costs incurred while negotiating the settlement package.
Asked by Town Meeting member Daniel Ensiminger to explain the genesis of Article 19 and the reasons it is now being shelved, Fried explained the agreement reached with new Daniels House landlord Dan Botwinik, the manager of real-estate holding corporation 59 Middlesex LLC, requires a smaller appropriation of taxpayer funding than initially anticipated.
The Reading Select Board, which over the past three months had discussed the lawsuit in closed door executive sessions on at least five separate occasions, had originally believed the community would have to sanction the transfer of more than $25,000 to end the suit.
“Article 19 sought Town Meeting approval for the Select Board to settle all claims related with a federal lawsuit and a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) complaint brought in regards to the property at 59 Middlesex Avenue,” Fried explained on Monday.
“The Select Board moved to indefinitely postpone this article because they reached an agreement with with property owner where less than $25,000 in town funds - or exactly $10,000 - will be used to resolve the matter,” the town attorney further elaborated.
Responding to several follow-up questions about the terms reached with the Daniels House landownership group, Fried explained the settlement also includes the following concessions:
• A $100,000 payment, covered by Reading’s liability insurer, to the court plaintiffs;
• A stipulation by town officials that all needed occupancy permits will be issued for any sober home operator planning to take over the old 33-bed nursing home;
• And the acknowledgement that the Town of Reading admits to none of the discrimination claims alleged in a June of 2020 lawsuit. The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court by the landlord in reaction to alleged delays in obtaining a town response to Botwinik’s proposal to lease the former nursing home to New Hampshire based Process Recovery Center LLC.
Under state and federal discrimination laws, sober homes and halfway houses are generally considered shielded from regulation - including the application of local zoning laws - because tenants are considered disabled persons.
The state’s Dover Amendment, which exempts religious and educational facilities from local zoning regulations, has also been interpreted as applying to sober homes and group homes where psychiatric help and other serves are offered.
Situated directly across the street from the Reading Public Library, the Daniels House is an oversized two-story home that sits on a .32 acre corner lot by Cape Cod Avenue. First constructed in 1913, according to records from the town assessor’s office, the 33-bedroom building had historically been used as a nursing home.
In November of 2019, Botwinik’s ownership group purchased the approximate 7,400 square foot building for $1.1 million.
A few months later, the new landlord organized an informational meeting to discuss with town officials and neighborhood abutters a proposal to operate a state licensed sober home at the site.
During that gathering, a handful of attendees expressed safety concerns about neighborhood children and library patrons coming into contact with recovering addicts and alcoholics. At the time, Town Manager Robert LeLacheur described the sober house concerns as “a very complex legal matter”.
According to the lawsuit filed against the Town of Reading last summer, Botwinik officially notified town officials on Dec. 4, 2019 about his plans to lease the Daniels House to the residential substance abuse treatment center for $12,500 a month. The initial lease term with The Process Recovery Center was expected to last for five years.
In a subsequent communication sent to Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios, the landlord formally asked for help in obtaining occupancy permits. The town then responded with a request for more information on Dec. 16, which the petitioner reportedly answered in a written memo sent on Jan. 7, 2020.
In the weeks that followed, the lawsuit alleges, the town and area abutters indicated their bias against the future residents of the sober house by outlining a plan to try to block the lease by delaying the permitting and organizing neighborhood resistance against the lease.
Referencing one such letter, the plaintiff claims Reading Community Development Director Julie Mercier, in a letter sent to Middlesex Avenue abutters and reviewed by the town manager, discussed a plan to stall the approval through local regulatory means.
“The Notice Letter is attached hereto as Exhibit D, and states,
inter alia: ‘It’s important to consider that, once one sober home makes its way into a town they can pave the way for others. Some towns have successfully fought the opening of these sober facilities based on things like requiring sprinkler systems. Our mission now is to find what leverage we have to protect our town and residents,’” a copy of the seven-page discrimination complaint reads.
The lawsuit also alleges that after those communications were sent, the town ignored multiple official requests between March and June of 2020 for an accommodation to be granted to allow the sober home to open.
Ultimately because of the delays, the plaintiffs allege, Process Recovery Center abandoned its plan to lease the site.
On Monday night, Select Board Chair Karen Herrick referred all questions regarding the lawsuit to town counsel. Fried, after answering the questions posed by Town Meeting members in relation to shelving Article 19, later advised the general public that the Select Board would be releasing a full statement about the settlement sometime this week.
As of press time on Wednesday morning, that Select Board statement had not yet been posted to the Town of Reading’s website.