VT Supreme Court Rules on Methadone Clinic

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Thursday June 26, 2014

Since the summer of 2012 when the South Burlington School Board first heard of the HowardCenter’s plans to renovate a medical office space on Dorset Street for the purpose of opening a methadone clinic, they have been steadfast in their opposition to the clinic’s location in close proximity to schools. Recently, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of HowardCenter and the Chittenden Clinic will remain in its current location. 

“It has been a fairly long process in terms of the appeal and while the board supports treatment, we continue to have concerns about the location. We have taken the process as far as we can, so we are closing the matter out and intend to be good neighbors,” School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald said. 

The road to the decision has been long indeed. During the fall of 2012 and into 2013, a number of emotionally charged public hearings about the location of the clinic were held, during which the school board and the South Burlington Development Review Board heard from parents and community members who opposed the clinic’s location, citing student safety as their primary concern. Many opponents also mentioned traffic congestion as a possible drawback, based upon preliminary estimates on the number of patients the clinic was expecting to see on a daily basis. Currently, the patient load is up to 500-600 individuals and 250-260 remain on a waiting list for treatment at either the Chittenden Clinic or UHC campus. Even so, HowardCenter Executive Director Todd Centybear said neither site is going to be able to grow enough to meet the statewide demand. 

In addition, the hearings gave local physicians, social workers, and individuals who had benefited from local clinics the chance to provide real world evidence on how clinics can be good for communities. The HowardCenter chose the Dorset Street spot because of its central location, the fact that it was on a bus line, and that the space was already zoned for medical office use. 

Zoning Administrator Ray Belair issued HowardCenter a zoning permit to begin interior renovations to 364 Dorset Street in 2012 and the clinic opened in September 2013. During the process, the board filed for appeal of the zoning permit, first with the Environmental Court. When their arguments were not deemed sufficient to deny the clinic’s operation in that location, they appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court. Oral arguments were made by the board’s attorney, Pietro Lynn. The appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court was the board’s last available legal option; ending a process that involved $50,000 in legal fees and $26,000 in security upgrades.

The school district invested in increased security measures last summer such as the thinning of the trees around the middle school and enhanced lighting. The parking lot was also monitored throughout the 2013-2014 school year. Since the clinic’s opening in September 2013, there have been no reports of incidents of concern.

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Centybear said, “We are pleased with the decision. It allows us to continue to provide care for people who need it. This isn’t about rejoicing in terms of a win; the district is made up of good people who had a different opinion. This isn’t a win/lose scenario and isn’t just about being good neighbors, but stakeholders in the community.”

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent