MIDDLESEX - Over the past two years, perhaps no other issue in Wilmington has sparked more controversy and division in the community than a proposal to erect a 48-bed detox center on a vacant commercial lot by the town's commuter rail station.
Though many expected a coming court challenge of the decision, hundreds of residents departed a Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting at the outset of January believing those sensational local deliberations had finally ended in defeat for project petitioner Bettering LLC.
But once again, the special permit applicants have managed to revive local discussion about the 362 Middlesex Ave. development plans by asking the board to reconsider its denial in light of superseding federal housing and American Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations.
If local political activity since is any indication, that discourse is about to get real ugly.
Most recently, advocacy group Concerned Citizens of Wilmington, in a complaint lodged late this month, is demanding that Wilmington's Select Board order ZBA Chairman Daniel Veerman to recuse himself from any further deliberations over the two-story detox facility.
If he refuses to do so, the elected officials have been asked to consider stripping
Veerman's appointment to the government body. Select Board members were expected to address the request during a regular meeting in Town Hall earlier this week, but those talks were presumably going to be held in executive session.
Concerned Citizens of Wilmington, formed in 2017 in response to the treatment facility proposal, alleges Veerman cannot act impartially on the matter. As evidence, the political organization has cited an Oct. of 2017 social media post by the ZBA chairman, who described those with substance dependence disorder as "junkies".
Veerman, who faced heavy criticism after news broke about his Facebook post in the fall of 2017, addressed the controversy shortly after the revelations by apologizing to local residents, especially those who have lost loved ones to addiction.
Earlier this month, the ZBA chairman technically voted in favor of the 48-bed treatment facility, which a majority of other board members also felt met the town's criteria for a special permit. Though the ZBA's vote was 3-to-2 in favor of the project, a supermajority of the board was needed in order for the special permit to pass muster.
Veerman's leadership during the deliberations also appear to undercut the most recent allegations about his ability to act impartially.
In one such display in December, the ZBA chairman urged his colleagues to ignore public pressure for a final vote, which in his opinion would be taken before Betterment LLC had a chance to present all relevant information regarding potential security arrangements.
“We’ve gone through this for a year. This has ripped this town wide open. I want to end it… but it’s important for all of us to have the requisite information we need to make a decision,” the chairman remarked at the time.
The newest twist in the years-long saga was prompted by a filing from local attorney Mark Bobrowksi, representing Betterment LLC, in the wake of the ZBA's decision earlier this month to reject the special permit request.
Specifically, Bobrowski's clients plan to reappear before the local officials on Feb. 27 to request a public hearing on its request for "reasonable accommodation". Specifically, the local lawyer contends the detox center, even if unable to meet the standards of Wilmington's zoning ordinance, is eligible for special consideration in light of federal protections given to disabled persons.
Federal regulators, citing previous court decisions, contend that those with drug dependencies are defined as a protected class of citizens under the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act.
As such, the local lawyer is arguing that Wilmington officials should agree to a "reasonable accommodation" by allowing the detox center to be built, even if ZBA members believe it doesn't fully meet all local zoning code requirements.
Town officials began challenging the detox center plans almost immediately after the Board of Selectmen (now known as the Select Board) first heard about the development back in Sept. of 2017.
According to local developer Paul Kneeland, who is listed as the manager of Bettering LLC, the project would involve the construction of a two-story, 17,280 square foot treatment center on a vacant 3.3-acre parcel that long-housed a popular doughnut and coffee shop.
Under the plan, an unspecified drug-and-alcohol treatment provider will provide medically-necessary treatment services to patients withdrawing from drug and alcohol dependency. The site in question is in close proximity to Wilmington's commuter rail station, where a handful of other retail stores and professional buildings are situated.
However, the non-conforming property also sits within a mixed zoning district that includes a dense neighborhood that largely consists of single-family homeowners. For the past year, abutters, packing before the ZBA during multiple standing-room-only public hearings, have made clear their opposition to the treatment center.
Those citizens, though acknowledging Wilmington could use a treatment center given the number of local residents effected by the deadly opioid epidemic, have insisted the Middlesex Avenue site is inappropriate for such a business.
“Make no mistake, this proposal would change the character of our home from being in a residential neighborhood to being an extension of an industrial zone,” said area resident and School Committee member MJ Byrnes during a ZBA meeting last month.
"Look at all these people whose lives are anguished…It's all about safety," Kim McNeily, who purchased her home for $460,000 in August of 2017, remarked last February during one of the ZBA's first meetings on the project. "We moved to Wilmington, because we thought this was a nice, tight-knit 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."
The drug treatment facility has generated such widespread community opposition that town leaders tried to block the development by changing the community's underlying zoning regulations.
Specifically, weeks after Kneeland and partners first unveiled the plans, veteran Selectman Michael McCoy, who has always insisted the Middlesex Avenue property is inappropriate for a detox center, announced plans to outlaw treatment centers in all zoning districts, with the lone exception of industrial areas in the community by Ballardvale Street.
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 Ave. 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 Town Meeting legislation.