Holyoke ZBA turns down appeal of treatment facility

  • The exterior of 11 Yale St. in Holyoke, site of a proposed inpatient drug treatment center, is shown Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

  • The exterior of 11 Yale St. with a sign from the opposition in the foreground, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

  • The exterior of 11 Yale St. with a supporting sign in the foreground, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

  • A crowd gathers for the Wednesday meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals, where the appeal of the building permit granted to the 11 Yale St. project was heard. Bera Dunau—Gazette Staff

Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2019 12:11:33 AM

HOLYOKE — Plans for a 16-bed drug treatment group home in a residential neighborhood will go forward after the Zoning Board of Appeals rejected an appeal Wednesday from abutters seeking to revoke the project’s building permit.

An overflow crowd on the fourth floor of the City Hall Annex building came to watch the ZBA tackle the appeal, with a number of people weighing in on both sides of the issue.

The property in question, at 11 Yale St., has provoked a visible reaction in the city, with “No On Yale” signs springing up in opposition and “Yes To Recovery” signs springing up in support.

“There’s a lot of emotion around this,” ZBA Chairman Josh Knox said before the opening of the public hearing.

The facility is a project of the Springfield nonprofit Mental Health Association Inc.

Michael Pill, an attorney representing the appellants, said he himself is someone who got sober a number of years ago.

“I’ve never made a secret about who I am,” he said.

A central argument that Pill made against the project was that medical care is a substantial part of the facility.

“That disqualifies this facility from being a by-right use under the local zoning ordinance,” Pill said.

As part of the written appeal to the board, Pill asserted that if MassHealth covers the cost for patients in the program, the program provides primarily medical care.

Residential care or rehabilitation centers are allowed in residential areas under Holyoke’s zoning, so long as “medical care is not a major element.”

But Cheryl Fasano, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association, said the facility would not, and could not, be a medical one.

“We aren’t licensed to run a medical facility,” she said.

It was also stated at the hearing that the only medications taken at the facility would be those prescribed by outside entities, which would be taken in the presence of staff and locked up when not in use.

Pill also said that the project presents a fire danger, a fear that others raised as well.

“I think this place is a potential disaster,” he said.

But Felicity Hardee, an attorney representing the association, said the organization would be installing a sprinkler system in the building, something she said it wouldn’t have if it was occupied by a family, and she said the argument that the association’s occupancy of the building would make it less safe “is just not supported by the facts.”

A number of people who have either been in or are currently in residential recovery facilities spoke in favor of the project, and asserted that fears around it were misplaced.

“If it weren’t for places like this, I would not be sober,” said Michael Brassard, an association board member.

At the same time, some opponents also took the time to say that they weren’t against recovery either.

“I can’t think of any person in this room that would be against treatment,” James Leahy, a city councilor at large who lives in the neighborhood.

At the same time, he said there is value in preserving a neighborhood.

“To change the climate and the characteristics of a neighborhood is something wrong,” he said.

“We all want people to get well,” said Beth Brogle, speaking after the meeting. “We feel the zoning is inappropriate.”

In explaining his thought process at the meeting, Building Commissioner Damian Cote, who issued the building permit, said the city’s definition of a residential care or rehabilitation center seemed to fit the project perfectly.

“It’s almost like it’s written for this,” he said.

After the ZBA rejected the appeal, a number of people in the audience burst into applause.

“We’re very pleased,” said Fasano, after the meeting, of the ZBA’s ruling.

She said the association would continue with the project, although she didn’t give a timetable for when it would be completed.

Also speaking after the meeting, Pill said he would be appealing the ruling to the state’s Land Court.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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