By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A health care provider says it plans to open a methadone clinic at 100 Plaistow Road and there is nothing the city can do to stop it.
Spectrum Health Systems received a building permit from the city in August to begin renovating a building near the Plaistow, N.H. line that was formerly The Children’s Learning Center daycare. The site is in a commercial area packed with restaurants and other businesses.
An Oct. 22 letter from Spectrum’s lawyer said the nonprofit organization is not required to follow the city’s zoning regulations or apply for a special permit from the City Council because it is an educational corporation.
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.
Spectrum’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 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 Haverhill Building Inspector Richard Osborne.
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 nonprofit educational corporations.
Haverhill officials aren’t quite ready to take Spectrum’s word for it that they have no say in the clinic opening, however.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he opposes a methadone clinic at the Plaistow Road location and that the city has retained outside counsel in preparation of a possible legal fight.
“I have been advised by counsel not to comment further since this matter may end up in litigation,” Fiorentini said.
Holtzman’s letter said Spectrum was formed “exclusively for educational and charitable purposes.” It 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.
“In light of the settled law in this area, I am hopeful that the enclosed material will suffice to ensure that the program is permitted to operate free from interference of any kind by the city,” Holtzman’s letter said.
The attorney 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 his 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.”
Another case in Holtzman’s letter describes the city of Weymouth’s unsuccessful attempt to have Spectrum apply for a special permit before opening a methadone clinic in that city. The letter said a federal court ruled that Spectrum was “likely to prevail on the merits” of its claim under the Dover Amendment. The court ordered the city to issue Spectrum the permits it needed to open its clinic.
Spectrum’s letter 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.”
City Solicitor William Cox said Spectrum has to yet to apply for an occupancy certificate from the building inspector to open the clinic. Cox said that application will trigger the city’s formal response to the proposal.
The proposed clinic is also a concern for officials in Plaistow, who have been discussing it with Haverhill officials.
Plaistow police Chief Stephen Savage said he met with Haverhill police Chief Alan DeNaro and Spectrum representatives last month.
“I do have reservations,” Savage said of the clinic. “But it’s probably from a police perspective in terms of what it does for area businesses.”
Savage said an increase of crime was his biggest concern.
“I’m concerned about crime growing, just as I would be with any commercial growth,” he said. “But I won’t know if my fears are founded until we actually see how this works.”
Savage said he was encouraged by his conversations with Spectrum representatives.
“There was a very healthy question and answer period,” Savage said. “I just want to be assured and have Plaistow residents be assured that the services offered are medically and socially acceptable. It is making me rethink our not in my backyard stance.”
The clinic would also be close to the Atkinson town line, but Town Administrator Bill Innes said had not heard about it.
“It’s the first I’m hearing about it,” Innes said. “It would depend just how close to the town line it is.”