Local residents voice concerns
Nov. 3, 2011
By Luke Baynes
What was once a private boarding school for dyslexic students could be the future home of psychiatric patients, or drug and alcohol addicts.
Both the Vermont State Hospital and the Maple Leaf Farm alcohol and drug rehabilitation center have expressed interest in purchasing the former Pine Ridge School property, located on Williston Road (U.S. 2) in Williston.
The Vermont State Hospital is seeking a location for psychiatric patients displaced from its Waterbury facility since Aug. 29 due to flooding from tropical storm Irene.
According to Patrick Flood, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, Pine Ridge School is one of two locations the state is targeting to house between 15 and 20 patients who are currently scattered at medical facilities across the state. The other potential site is located on the campus of the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.
“We’re still very interested (in Pine Ridge),” said Flood. “We’re trying to figure out all the ins and outs of what it would take to renovate it.”
Flood said the state is currently assessing the Pine Ridge property, vacant since 2009, to determine what modifications would be required to make the facility secure and to ensure it adheres to fire safety regulations.
The 127-acre Pine Ridge property, which is now owned by Peoples’ United Bank, is currently priced on the V/T Commercial website at $3.5 million.
Flood acknowledged that the property, which was designed to accommodate 100 students, is a “short-term solution.” He said the state would consider leasing a portion of the property from Peoples’ United, and also left open the possibility of a lease arrangement with Maple Leaf Farm, should the Underhill-based rehabilitation center decide to purchase the property.
“There’s more space there than we would need for our purposes,” Flood said. “Actually, we’ve had some conversations with the folks from Maple Leaf about how we could work together and how it could be mutually beneficial.”
Bill Young, executive director of Maple Leaf Farm, said Maple Leaf is interested in buying the property as a supplement to its existing Underhill facility, which can accommodate 41 patients.
“As far as our interest goes, we are interested in purchasing the property; we’re not interested in leasing it,” said Young. “We’re at the stage where we have no room — no room for staff and no room for patients. We have a waiting list of 50 to 70 people every day.”
But the potential of drug and alcohol rehabilitators, and/or mentally disabled patients moving to Williston has made some local residents uneasy.
Bruce Allen, a resident of the Sunrise at French Hill community adjacent to the Pine Ridge School property, said he worries about the safety of his three children and the other children in the neighborhood.
“Our properties adjoin to the Pine Ridge School facilities. This is a family neighborhood with a lot of young kids, and we’re talking about a higher level of patient that is going to be possibly housed there,” Allen said. “The other issue having a facility like that next door is would that create any adverse effects to our property values? When we purchased our home, we knew there was a school there. A school versus a state mental hospital is two different things.”
Allen’s neighbor, Julie Mazza, a registered nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care and a mother of two, shared his concerns.
“I look at it from a parental perspective, and that’s why it scares me so much, because if you have this person who is sick and somehow they get out, where are they going to run?” asked Mazza. “And we’re so close … the proximity is a little bit scary.”
Williston town planner Ken Belliveau noted that even though the state is one of the potential suitors for the Pine Ridge property, it still has to go through the town planning process like any other applicant.
“I think what’s important for people to understand is the state is not exempt from local zoning regulations,” Belliveau said. “If the state does decide that they want to locate some portion of the state hospital on the Pine Ridge School property, they would have to go to the (Development Review Board) to get an approval for that — even though the buildings are already existing, which means that folks here in town would have the opportunity to express their opinion if they feel the need to do so one way or the other.”
Flood said the state has every intention of talking to the town and its residents — if and when the process reaches the application stage.
“When we get to the point if we feel like we’re ready to make an offer or to come to an agreement on a lease, one of the early things we’re going to want to do is talk to the townspeople, not just go through the formal permitting process,” Flood said.
Young said Maple Leaf Farm would offer similar assurances to town residents if it purchases the property.
“We intend to be contributing members of any community that we belong to,” said Young. “We intend to be excellent neighbors, we want to have a facility that is very well-maintained and that nobody would object to having in their area and we intend that our neighbors will not be troubled by anybody at all.”