By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The fight is on.
The city’s building inspector has denied Spectrum Health Systems’ request for an occupancy permit to open a methadone clinic at 100 Plaistow Road near the Plaistow border. The site is in a commercial area packed with restaurants and other businesses.
The city’s denial follows news that the Plaistow Board of Selectmen voted last week to oppose the proposed methadone clinic, recent comments by Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini that he is against the location and opposition by residents in both communities that includes an online petition signed by more than 250 people.
Spectrum received a building permit from the city in August to begin renovating a building near the Plaistow line that was formerly The Children’s Learning Center day care. The company filed Jan. 2 for an occupancy permit to open for business.
Building Inspector Richard Osborne’s Jan. 9 letter to the company states he denied the request on zoning grounds.
Osborne said the city granted Spectrum a building permit last summer based on information from the company that it planned to use the building for business and education above grade 12. He said he learned only after granting the building permit that Spectrum planned to use the building as a clinic for “health care services including drug abuse treatment and rehabilitation.”
“The proposed use for other than an educational training facility was not made known until after the building permit was issued,” Osborne wrote.
The Plaistow Road property is in a commercial highway zone in which “drug or alcohol rehabilitation centers/rehabilitation centers and health care services” are not allowed, according the city’s zoning code.
“Based on the information Spectrum has provided thus far, it does not appear that the primary and dominant purpose of the property qualifies for a zoning exemption,” Osborne said.
City Solicitor William Cox Jr. said the Spectrum has 30 days from the date of the denial letter to appeal the building inspector’s decision to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals. If Spectrum’s local appeal fails, the company could then challenge the city’s decision in court, Cox said.
Fiorentini said the city has hired outside legal counsel to advise them on the matter and that he is looking for more details about Spectrum’s plans. He said he has requested a meeting with Spectrum’s local lawyer, Timothy Schiavoni, to discuss the proposal.
“We’re open to talking to them,” the mayor said. “We’re going to do everything we can to protect the city and our residents, but in the end we are bound by the law just like they are.”
Spectrum’s position is that it is not required to follow the city’s zoning regulations or apply for a special permit from the City Council to open the clinic because the company is a non-profit educational corporation.
“The Dover Amendment exempts education programs like Spectrum’s from limitations imposed by zoning ordinances,” reads a letter from attorney Paul Holtzman of the Krokidas & Bluestein law firm to the city.
The Dover Amendment is a state law that prohibits zoning ordinances from regulating the use of land or structures for educational purposes on land owned or leased by non-profit educational corporations.
Holtzman’s letter said the clinic will not only administer methadone to patients addicted to heroin, but also provide educational services such as counseling and teaching independent living skills. Methadone is a synthetic drug that relieves the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.
The city is also disputing Spectrum’s assertion that it qualifies as a non-profit educational corporation under state law.
“If you believe there is additional information specifically establishing that the primary and dominant use of the property is for educational purposes, I would be prepared to consider such additional information,” Osborne wrote.
Holtzman’s letter to the city includes a Land Court decision affirming that the program Spectrum plans to open in Haverhill is “an educational purpose” covered by the Dover Amendment.
The letter also includes information on other communities that have tried unsuccessfully to stop Spectrum from opening methadone clinics. The organization operates multiple outpatient clinics throughout New England.
Holtzman said the city of Pittsfield recently paid Spectrum $100,000 to settle a lawsuit when that city tried to stop a clinic there.
“In the unlikely event that litigation of this matter is required, the outcome will likely be the same as a recent matter in Pittsfield,” Holtzman wrote in a letter to Haverhill’s building inspector. “There, the city made the ill-advised and ultimately quite expensive decision to interfere with Spectrum’s operation of the very same program.”
Haverhill has rejected two prior proposals for methadone clinics under a process laid out in its zoning code that requires applicants to go through a public review and obtain a special permit from the City Council.
Officials in Haverhill and Plaistow have complained that Spectrum is attempting to push through its plan without a governmental or public review.
“Both the town of Plaistow and city of Haverhill have been denied the normal due process of a site plan review and the time-honored municipal reviews that help assess municipal and neighborhood impacts of developments,” Plaistow Town Manager Fitzgerald said.
Spectrum claims Haverhill’s review of its proposal is limited to “reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures and determining yard size, lot area, set backs, open space, parking and building coverage requirements.”