BY PAT BLAIS
MIDDLESEX - It's a story replete with claims of shady business dealings, allegations of political bias and insensitivity, back-and-forth legal maneuvering, and a small-town neighborhood that insists its very safety might be jeopardized by a for-profit venture.
Over the past six months, a proposal to erect a 48-bed drug and alcohol detox center on a vacant 3.3-acre parcel on Middlesex Avenue in North Wilmington has generated quite a bit of controversy. And in recent months, that outcry has only grown louder as the property owner plodded ahead with a special permit petition for the development in spite of a Town Meeting vote in December that rendered the underlying use illegal.
Earlier this month, during an hours-long public hearing before Wilmington's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), local citizens and public officials turned up in droves to speak out against a proposal by local developer Paul Kneeland, the manager of Bettering LLC, to construct a two-story, 17,280 square foot acute treatment center at 362 Middlesex Ave.
Under the plan, which was first floated as a concept during a Board of Selectmen's meeting six months earlier, an unspecified drug-and-alcohol treatment provider will provide medical-focussed treatment services for patients withdrawing from drug and alcohol dependency.
"It's designed to assist recovering drug and alcohol abusers with the first stage of treatment. It's short-term," explained local attorney Mark Bobrowski, who is representing Bettering LLC. "It's not something where people would stay for six weeks or two months. It's not a methadone clinic or a sober house. It's not a come-and-go [facility]."
The land in question, which over the years housed a mixture of uses like a doughnut business and a thrift store, is situated by the town's commuter rail station and a handful of retail shops, professional buildings, and restaurants.
However, the non-conforming property also happens to straddle a zoning line that separates those commercial enterprises from a residential neighborhood, and citizens in the area fear drug-addicted patients might walk out of treatment early and break into their homes or commit other crimes to find a way to pay for their next fix.
During the recent ZBA gathering, held in mid-Februrary, residents like Kim McNeily, who has struggled with a loved ones battle against addiction, predicted the neighborhood would be inundated by a crime wave.
Like many citizens, she urged the developer to look elsewhere within town for the detox center.
"Look at all these people whose lives are anguished…It's all about safety," said McNeily, who last August purchased a home in the area for $460,000. "We moved to Wilmington, because we thought this was a nice, tight-nit community with nice school systems. You can imagine our horror when five days after buying our home, we found out a developer was looking to build a detox across the street.
"I lived this life, and I know what's coming, should it be built," she later warned. "When [patients leave early], like my sister did, they commit crimes."
Complicating the recent ZBA proceedings, Bobrowski acknowledged that proximity to the single-family neighborhood has sparked a host of concerns about security within the building. However, without an expert to attest to those safety protocols, he was unable to answer questions about how those possible impacts would be mitigated.
"With respect to other facilities that are detox centers in Massachusetts, we intend to contact their police chiefs to get a letter indicating what the performance record has been," the Concord-based lawyer vowed. "We promise that at the next meeting, there will be someone there better versed at safety within detox facilities."
Some less-than-pleased town officials, responding to the petitioner's inability to answer those questions about security, also lashed out at the development team for submitting incomplete project details, such as concrete parking and site egress plans.
"You want a special permit, and yet you say we need other things before we can vote on it. Why aren't those things here," complained ZBA member Thomas Siracusa. "We're not here to build your defense, and every time you come here, you seem to do that. You need to come here with everything you need."
A short and divisive history
Town officials first began challenging the medical detox facility shortly after Kneeland approached the Board of Selectmen last September to pitch the proposal along with a handful of other business partners, including former Wilmington Town Manager Michael Caira and David Ray, a one-time operator of sober houses in Wakefield and elsewhere.
Soon after that pitch, Ray reportedly pulled his involvement from that ownership group when a handful of people, including former sober house clients and one local family, accused the would-be partner of some questionable business practices.
Weeks later, veteran Selectman Michael McCoy, who has always insisted the Middlesex Avenue property is inappropriate for a detox center, announced plans to block the development by outlawing detox centers in all zoning districts, with the lone exception of industrial areas in the community by Ballardvale Street.
Backed by neighbors and members of advocacy group Concerned Citizens of Wilmington, the elected official managed to collect enough signatures to convene a Special Town Meeting last December to establish clearer rules surrounding the use.
According to proponents of the measure, Wilmington needed to embrace the concept of opening a detox facility within its borders, but only in instances where those enterprises are placed in appropriate locations.
Yet others in the community were horrified by the zoning change, which they claimed stigmatized addiction at a time when thousands of people, including Wilmington residents, are dying from opioid-related overdoses.
Ultimately, the zoning change easily passed in a lopsided 366-to-62 vote during the special assembly on Dec. 16.
However, just weeks before citizens had a chance to enact that new zoning bylaw at Town Meeting, Bettering LLC counteracted McCoy's move with a legal maneuver of its own.
Specifically, Bobrowski, on behalf of his clients, submitted a preliminary subdivision approval plan regarding 362 Middlesex Turnpike to the Wilmington Planning Board. In doing so, the lawyer successfully froze the underlying zoning on the site for the next eight years and thereby shielded his clients from the zoning change.
The preliminary approval process is intended to provide a way for city officials to shape larger-scale subdivisions that are expected to generate significant neighborhood resistance or controversy.
By introducing a concept plan, developers are able to engage in meaningful discussions about a project without having to take on the financial burden of hiring architects and other costly consultants for the preparation of detailed site plan documents.
During the recent ZBA gathering, Bobrowski reminded local officials and citizens alike about the reality of that zoning freeze, which essentially makes the detox center a by-right use by special permit, as long as it meets Wilmington's building bylaws.
At the time, the lawyer was trying to solicit feedback from the board members about ways to improve the proposal by eliminating unneeded parking spaces and redesigning access road and building entrance dimensions. He suggested those kinds of changes would push the new use away from the neighborhood homes.
When ZBA members responded by demanding he finalize those details with his client and submit a "complete application", Bobrowski warned he has already prepared such a development package.
"We're trying to do something good," responded the Concord lawyer. "[We have that plan now]. It's the muscle plan, if you want to call for that. That follows every single Planning Board rule and regulation. But we don't want to build that."