MIDDLESEX - Officials from a Lowell-based addictions treatment center just recently sold a previously skeptical Reading public on the merits of moving a one-of-a-kind substance abuse recovery facility into a quiet residential neighborhood by the town’s public library.

Earlier this month, after a previous pitch to move an adult treatment program into Reading met stiff neighborhood resistance, the community’s Select Board unanimously sanctioned a proposal by the Lowell House Addiction Treatment and Recovery group to house a unique program for adolescents into a 33-room house at 59 Middlesex Avenue.

The 7,400 square foot structure, which occupies a .32-acre corner lot by Cape Cod Avenue, sits directly across the street from the Reading Public Library.

According to Lowell House CEO Bill Garr, the non-profit organization plans to convert the old senior care facility into the state’s first ever “co-occuring enhanced” treatment program for adolescents.

Besides having a 50-year track record in providing affordable addictions treatment options to residents in and around the greater Lowell area, the non-profit organization also comes to Reading with the full backing of the state’s top health officials.

In fact, just before Lowell House managers appeared before town leaders last week, Mass. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders announced the state was partnering with the addictions center by providing some $3.6 million to help fund the launch of the fully-licensed adolescent treatment program.

The Lowell House award is being dispersed in annual $400,000 payments between now and 2030 and will help the state double the number of treatment beds available for adolescents with substance abuse disorders.

“These awards are part of our ongoing investment in life-saving addiction treatment programs, especially for young people struggling with mental health concerns and substance use,” said Sudders in a prepared statement issued in early June. “The supports and services offered by inpatient treatment programs can often be the most effective option for many teens dealing with addiction and their families.”

Despite the state’s endorsement of the Lowell House move to Reading, there was sufficient reason to believe the community might not share that enthusiasm.

Specifically, during a Town Meeting gathering in Reading earlier this spring, the community appropriated $10,000 in taxpayer funding to help settle a civil rights lawsuit involving a previous bid by property owner Daniel Botwinik to open a recover center at the sprawling 7,400 square foot house.

With the town’s insurance carrier cutting a much larger check, Reading’s Select Board in total paid more than $110,000 to Botwinik in order to end the court case, in which the landlord accused town managers of intentionally delaying the issuance of permits for a proposed adult treatment center application.

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 services are offered.

Earlier opposition

The controversy over the future of the oversized dwelling at 59 Middlesex Avenue began after the old operator of the Daniels Nursing Center was put up for sale in 2019.

Built in the early twentieth century as a boarding house, the property was reportedly converted into a nursing home sometime in the 1960’s. In 1986, the Whittier Health Network took over management of the 33-bed facility, which was regularly ranked as one of the state’s top nursing homes in the country.

However, in July of 2019, due to regulatory and financial pressures, the Daniels Nursing Home officially closed its doors.

In November of 2019, Botwinik’s ownership group purchased the two-story home for $1.1 million, and within weeks, rumors began to circulate about plans to covert the nursing home into a sober house.

Neighbors, worried about neighborhood children and library patrons coming into contact with potential criminals and/or house residents who had relapsed, immediately began questioning the suitability of such a transition.

In January of 2020, the new landlord, along with would-be tenant Process Recovery Center, organized an informational meeting to discuss with town officials and neighborhood abutters a proposal to operate a state licensed residential treatment program for adults at the site.

In his subsequent lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Botwinik claimed town officials showed a clear bias against the future residents of the treatment facility by emerging from the meeting with plans to organize neighborhood resistance against the project.

Referencing one such letter, the plaintiff in the seven-page discrimination complaint claimed 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 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 recovery center to open.

Ultimately because of the delays, the plaintiffs allege, Process Recovery Center abandoned its plan to lease the site. At stake was the $12,500 a month lease that had been negotiated.

Per the terms of the settlement deal reached between Botwinik, the Town of Reading technically admitted to no official wrongdoing while responding to the initial treatment center proposal.

However, besides paying out $110,000, the Select Board agreed to a stipulation that all needed occupancy permits would be issued for any subsequent proposal to covert the old nursing home into a sober house or other type of treatment center.

“The Town admitted no such discrimination but, balancing the cost of litigation and the consequences of any potentially negative finding by [the Federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development], the Select Board concluded that resolving the matter expeditiously would be appropriate,” Town Manager Robert LeLacheur and the Select Board contended in a joint statement issued in late April.

The other public health crisis

Long before COVID-19 started grabbing all the health headlines, the opioid epidemic ravaging small and large communities across the northeast was considered by many public health experts as New England’s most pressing emergency.

Authorities say the drug crisis was initially sparked due to the easy availability of new classes of prescription opioid-based painkillers, like Purdue Pharma’s Oxycontin brand. Originally marketed in 1995 as non-habit forming, Oxycontin, in generic form known as oxycodone, was widely prescribed by doctors for well over a decade before regulators realized the painkiller was indeed quite addictive.

By the time state and federal officials responded by trying to cut off the easy supply of the prescription drugs, tens of thousands of opioid-addicted citizens had already turned to the illicit market for heroin and cheaper alternatives.

Complicating the public health response, sometime around 2013, police across the state realized that narcotics traffickers had begun adding fentanyl, an extremely strong synthetic opioid, into batches of heroin.

By now, according to various seasoned drug detectives, the “heroin” supply being brought into Massachusetts is more often than not comprised of synthetic opioids. Described as 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, fentanyl has been blamed for a stunning spike in number of opioid-related overdoses being recorded in Massachusetts.

“In 2020, there were 1,895 opioid-related overdose deaths where a toxicology screen was also available. Among these deaths, fentanyl was present in 92 percent,” DPH officials explained in a May of 2021 report.

Reading and its neighbors are far from strangers to the drug crisis, which has since 2015 claimed the lives of at least 22 town residents. Catching most of the headlines were grim statistics about the number of young teenagers and adults being swept up in the addiction wave - although as many have pointed out, persons of all ages have suffered due to the crisis.

The crisis reached its peak number of deaths in 2016, when 2,102 fatal opioid-related deaths were recorded in the state of Massachusetts. However, overdose death rates, particularly those involving opioids, have nonetheless remained stubbornly high, with an average more than 2,000 deaths being recorded in the state over the past five years.

There is also some concern that the COVID-19 crisis, which isolated family members away from each other and created crushing financial hardships for thousands of small business owners, has already resulted in a resurgence of alcohol and drug abuse trends.

The pandemic also created considerable obstacles for those struggling with substance abuse disorders, a population that already faces significant challenges in pursing treatment options given a limited number of beds and affordable long-term recovery programs available in the state.

Based upon some estimates provided to the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH), it is possible that the total number of opioid-related overdose deaths will surpass the peak number reached in 2016.

Specifically, Mass. DPH officials in a May of 2021 data brief explained that the state has still not finalized its tally of overdose-related deaths for the prior year. However, with at least 2,035 confirmed deaths being attributed to opioid-related causes in 2020, at least one model estimates the total number of fatalities will climb to 2,104 - or two more deaths than the peak 2016 total.

Meanwhile, based upon the first three months of data in 2021, the state is now on pace to surpass those 2020 figures.

“In 2020, there were 2,035 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths and DPH estimates that there will be an additional 66 to 70 death,” the May of 2021 report reads. “Preliminary data from January to March 2021 show there were 507 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths…which is a 1.9 percent increase when compared to the first three months of 2020.”

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