By Luke Baynes
Maple Leaf Farm officials provided details regarding its plans to locate an alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinic at the former Pine Ridge School Tuesday—although it did little to assuage the concerns of several local residents who object to the planned location’s proximity to residential housing and schools.
The former Pine Ridge property, located at 9505 Williston Road, is immediately adjacent to the Sunrise at French Hill neighborhood on Sunrise Drive. It is 1.7 miles from Williston Central School.
Maple Leaf Farm Executive Director Bill Young explained during Tuesday’s Williston Planning Commission meeting that the Underhill-based nonprofit is seeking a zoning change for the Pine Ridge property because of the need for additional capacity to handle large waiting lists of addicts seeking rehabilitative treatment. He said about 700 people had to be turned away last year due to lack of space.
Young also responded to residents’ safety concerns, stating that the Underhill facility has averaged about a dozen calls to the state police on an annual basis for minor incidents.
“I’ve been unable to find any record or memory of anybody (in the past eight years) leaving the property while in treatment with us and assaulting anybody,” Young said. “Nobody’s left the facility to peddle drugs to neighbors or anyone in our community while in treatment. We understand safety concerns, but I think the facts speak for themselves.”
Lee Orsky, a physician assistant who serves as primary care director at Maple Leaf Farm, said background checks are conducted and potential patients are queried about psychiatric and criminal histories. She said Maple Leaf Farm does not accept convicted arsonists, sex offenders or people with a history of violent crime.
Williston resident Robert Nesbit, a doctor who specializes in plastic and reconstructive surgery, suggested that increasing Maple Leaf Farm’s capacity while also moving it closer to homes could create safety issues.
“You talk about not having people with diagnosed mental health issues, but as we all know, plenty of addicts have undiagnosed mental health issues, too,” Nesbit said.
Jim McCullough, a Governor Chittenden Road resident and owner of Catamount Outdoor Family Center, stated his support for a Maple Leaf Farm facility in Williston.
“It’s easy to generalize and categorize and call people criminals or addicts. Pick a problem and put a name to it, but they’re all people, and they’re all somebody’s child, and many of them are somebody’s mom or dad or brother or sister,” McCullough said.
McCullough further suggested that a possible condition of approval for the facility could involve the requirement that Maple Leaf Farm give waiting list priority to Williston residents suffering from alcohol or drug addiction.
Williston Road resident Phyllis Phillips suggested that the real safety threat is addicts who are not receiving treatment, noting that when they are in a facility like Maple Leaf Farm, “that’s the safest that they are.”
“If we’re not going to have a facility in Williston, then where?” Phillips asked. “This seems like a perfect place to have it, facility-wise.”
Sunrise Drive resident Kate Martin expressed concerns about staffing and security, observing that Maple Leaf Farm has one nurse and no physicians on duty overnight and employs no security officers. She also pointed out that Maple Leaf Farm hasn’t formally committed to setting a limit on its capacity.
“There is nothing to prevent Maple Leaf Farm from adding more beds or expanding its services, including the types of drug rehab services it offers. There’s nothing to prevent that in the future,” Martin said.
Martin also questioned whether Maple Leaf Farm’s specific plan application offers substantial public benefit under the town’s zoning bylaws. The primary public benefit proposed under the specific plan is preservation of open space.
“To me, this area is already preserved. There’s no access to it. It’s very rugged,” Martin said. “So what is Maple Leaf bringing to the table that’s new?”
Williston Director of Planning and Zoning Ken Belliveau noted that the Planning Commission has yet to make a formal recommendation on the public benefit question. As the Observer reported in August, the commission made a “tentative determination” at its Aug. 7 meeting that “a possible substantial public benefit can be obtained by the town of Williston from the proposed specific plan.”
The Planning Commission, as an advisory body, will eventually be asked to make a recommendation to the Williston Selectboard, which has the authority to approve or deny the zoning change, following a warned public hearing.