Middlesex couple resists proposed psychiatric facility
By David Taube
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | November 11,2012
MIDDLESEX — State officials trying to resolve the psychiatric patient housing shortage have come into conflict with a Middlesex couple seeking to protect the safety of their children and avoid depreciation of their property.
The state is seeking to construct a seven-bed secure residential facility near a State Police barracks and state archives and records offices on Route 2, but a neighboring couple has turned to the state’s environmental court to intervene.
“If this happens, I will be forced to move,” resident Brian Hannon said at a Middlesex zoning board meeting this fall. “I will be forced to move from the house that I’ve been working on for 10 years.”
The state has gone so far as to consider buying the couple’s property in order to move the project forward, but legislators rejected the proposal.
The state believes it will prevail, but the court could take months to resolve the issue.
The state is trying to expedite the matter, citing the emergency need of housing for patients after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Vermont State Hospital. Following the storm, the state dispersed VSH patients to facilities across the state, which has overtaxed emergency rooms at hospitals.
At a Middlesex Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing on the state’s project in late September, Hannon said how having psychiatric patients at that location could endanger his 8-year-old and 10-year-old children, who often play in the backyard of the home.
“I have two very young kids, and this is a concern to me,” Hannon said.
He also said he’s put forth significant home improvement work into the property by himself. He said there’s no question in his mind that the proposed state facility would decrease the value of his property.
He added if he had known when he was buying the property that a psychiatric facility would one day be placed next to it, he would not have purchased the home.
He previously had a security system installed at the home, even though he lived in New Jersey for 29 years and no one ever broke into his property, he said.
In the Burlington area earlier this year, a mentally disturbed person attacked his friend at the friend’s home, Hannon explained.
He said he wanted to ensure the safety of his family from a similar kind of incident.
“The chances are small, but it could happen,” Hannon said.
The state’s Mental Health Department commissioner, Patrick Flood, was also present at the meeting, and he said the site will be locked down. But doors and locks can only do so much, and the management of patients and the facility can be just as significant, Flood said.
Flood dismissed the concern about the proposed facility causing depreciation of the value of the couple’s home.
“There’s no evidence that that happens,” Flood said. “It’s an assumption.”
The chair of the local zoning board, Charles Merriman, briefly mentioned it would consider denying the state’s application outright, but he said the board’s role is limited.
State rules prevent towns from applying zoning regulations in a way that precludes specified development, like mobile homes and certain state facilities.
Merriman said in an interview earlier this month that there are exceptions to that rule, but towns can only deny permits for state facilities under narrowly defined circumstances, which were not applicable to this case.
He said the board could put conditions on the project, but it did not have the authority to deny the project.
After nearly an hour of discussion, the zoning board approved the permit application under certain conditions.
As part of the stipulations, the board required that the state negotiate in a bona fide manner with Hannon over a fence or tree line that would restrict visibility of his household.
The property already has a wood picket fence surrounding the backyard. The project would overlap part of an existing baseball field on state land.
Two conference calls with legislators and state officials have sought to address the situation, but representatives said buying the property was an unfavorable solution, a stance led by Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Colchester, and Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Dorset.
Mazza said the homeowner offered a price, but he believed buying the property would create a bad precedent. He likened the approach to a hostage situation.
Flood, the mental health commissioner, said Friday that efforts to mitigate potential issues with Hannon were unsuccessful.
“He never got back to me, so I assume at this point he’s really not interested in mitigation,” Flood said. “He’s interested in litigation.”