The state’s seven-bed mental health facility is on hold in Middlesex, and there’s no telling for how long.
Brian Hannon, one of six abutting landowners to the state property slated for the facility, filed the sole appeal last month to a zoning permit issued by the local Zoning Board of Adjustments. He and his family live in the home closest to the property, and his primary concern is the safety of his two children, who are 8 and 10 years old.
“I’m concerned that someone will become mentally attached to one of my children,” he said. “There’s been no bend on this facility for my family. The only thing that has been considered is can we put up a fence for you. And it’s only because I showed up at the zoning board meeting and put up opposition to the project.”
The proposed Middlesex residential facility is part of the state’s mental health overhaul that went into effect after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the state’s 54-bed psychiatric hospital in Waterbury. Since then, state officials have scrambled to find open beds to treat psychiatric patients, and they say the central Vermont facility is necessary to meet patient needs until a permanent fix is found.
“We’re building this because we need something very quickly,” said Mary Moulton, deputy commissioner of the Department of Mental Health. “We need beds.”
State officials have repeatedly said the facility is “temporary,” but there is currently nothing in writing that establishes the parameters of the facility’s lifespan.
The facility, its patients and its future
The facility would sit next to the Middlesex State Police Barracks and would feature two 32-by-88-foot modular metal units strapped together in a “T” formation. Its occupants, say top mental health officials, would be low-risk patients who are on the last leg of their recovery.
“By intent and by design this is really a facility for people waiting to be discharged,” said Patrick Flood, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health. “These folks are not in an unpredictable state. They’re pretty stable … and I want to stress that I don’t see them as a high-risk population at all.”
Moulton, who will take over as commissioner of mental health next month, said that most of the patients will be safe to return to their communities by the time the temporary facility is shut down.
“That kind of concerns me,” said Hannon. “That a patient is in there for a year or whatever and the only thing they’re going to be listening to in that penned-in area are cars going by and my kids’ names. There’s nothing else to do.”
Hannon said that the close proximity of the police barracks doesn’t settle his nerves, as his house was once broken into from the side facing the police.
State officials maintain that the facility would close after three years, but there are no guarantees in writing. Act 79, the mental health reform bill, does not mention time limits on temporary residential facilities.
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, said he plans to propose a bill to enact such a limit.
“I’m going to introduce legislation that the Middlesex facility needs to close by the time the Berlin (state hospital) is (operational) because I was told it’s going to be closed after three years,” Klein said.
The state psychiatric hospital is slated for completion on Jan. 1, 2014.
But Rep. Anne Donahue, co-chair of the Joint Mental Health Oversight Committee, takes a different stance. She said three years might easily turn into many.
“Best intentions aside, ‘interim’ could mean for the life of the structure, particularly given the evidence of the challenges in finding a permanent site – plus, there will be the issue of the capital budget to address,” she wrote via email on Tuesday.
Moulton explained why state officials have frequently mentioned the facility’s three-year lifespan.
“We talked about three years because we knew by the time it would take to get the facility up, we’d be able to have an assessment to look for a place to build a permanent facility or realize we didn’t need one,” she said. “This will give us time to assess. … The three years came out of our assessment, not the law.”
When state officials told the Middlesex Board of Adjustment that the facility would close after three years, Board Chair Charles Merriman told them that holding the state to such a limit was beyond the board’s authority.
“The state came in partly to soften everyone’s concern about (the home), and they said they’ll keep it for three years, and I believe that’s their intention,” said Merriman, who is a Montpelier-based lawyer. “I wanted to articulate that we cannot consider that. We don’t make sausages like that. We have an authority and an obligation; and we apply the law in accordance with our obligation; we don’t apply the law outside of our authority.”
But even if such regulations did not exist, said Merriman, the project still would have received a conditional use permit since it met the town’s criteria.
“Conditional uses are permitted uses unless any person opposing it can show that it creates an undue burden on those standards,” he said. “We didn’t find it created an undue burden on those standards.”
Last week, Hannon’s attorney, Lauren Kolitch, submitted a statement of questions to the Vermont Environmental Court, which sets the scope of the appeal, as a Times Argus story on Tuesday explained.
“This is the last thing in the world I want to be doing — spending money and time and stress,” said Hannon. “I really, really do not want to have to be doing this, but I don’t want my kids to have to be around this for who knows how long.”
Flood said the state would likely ask the court for an expedited decision on the case, and court clerks suggested that the initial pre-trial conference would probably be held in December, although it’s not yet scheduled.
A decade ago, Hannon and his wife Amy bought a dilapidated structure along Route 2 in Middlesex. They chose Middlesex for the education system, said Hannon.
After 10 years of working tirelessly to turn that weathered structure into a comfortable homestead with wood trim and floors, Hannon said he is prepared to sell it to the state.
Flipping through hard copies of emails between his lawyer and Jeff Lively, legal counsel to the Department of Buildings and General Services, he found what he was looking for. He highlighted several exchanges to substantiate his story that the state reneged on a proposal to buy his home.
As Hannon understood the legal back-and-forth, the state had proposed an offer that he was ready to accept. But before he could sign the papers, he said the state withdrew.
“Mr. Hannon’s cost was higher than what we felt we should pay,” said Moulton.
An email exchange between Flood and Klein on Oct. 30 showed that the department was strongly considering buying the Hannons’ home.
“Just for reference we have 5 people right now in a hospital bed at $1500 per day, who could be in the Secure residence,” wrote Flood. “At that cost we could buy Mr. Hannon’s house with one month of hospital stays.”
But on Nov. 15, Flood told VTDigger that buying Hannon’s home would set a poor precedent for future negotiations. He didn’t mentioned the offer on the Hannons’ home.
“That’s just not good public policy,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford to do that, and I don’t think it’s a good plan, especially in a case like this when the whole arrangement is temporary.”
In addition to Hannon, other Middlesex residents took issue with the proposal, but not with the facility itself so much as the level of communication.
“The outreach was not there,” said Stephen Morabito, who lives about four miles from the town center. “This is Vermont. We’re supposed to act like a community to make large decisions like this.”
Angelo Napolitano, who lives just down the road from Hannon, also said he didn’t hear about the zoning board hearing until after the fact.
“When I heard they gave the (approval) to the state, I said: ‘How can you do that without letting anyone in the village know it happened?’”
But it appears that the town did let people know and followed state statute almost to a tee.
The Times Argus provided VTDigger with a $52.42 receipt for the town, showing that the paper ran a warning for the board of adjustment hearing on Sept. 11 and 17. According to Vermont statute, the town is required to run such a warning in a newspaper circulated in the region within 15 days of the hearing.
Town Clerk Cindy Carlson said she sent out a notice of the public hearing to all abutting landowners, which is required by statute as well, and Hannon confirmed that he received it.
The statute also requires the town to post the notice in three or more places throughout the town, including “within view of the public right-of-way.” While Carlson said the town did not post the notice on the property, it was posted in the town clerk’s office, in town hall and in Rumney Elementary School.
Peter Hood, Middlesex selectboard chair, said Flood only gave the board a day or two’s notice that he planned to meet with the board on Sept. 11. For that reason, Flood wasn’t on the board’s agenda. Hood said Flood informed the board of the department’s plan at the meeting.
Just a day prior, on Sept. 10, Flood began talking to Klein about the possibility of putting a facility on the state’s land in Middlesex.
Klein provided a series of emails with the commissioner, detailing a discourse about Flood’s outreach activity, which included talks with local businesses. Flood said in a separate interview that he went door to door in the Middlesex town center, making a concerted effort to reach out to as many townspeople as he could.
“We certainly were not trying to slip anything by anybody,” he said. “We reached out and did try to let the town know what we were doing, and that doesn’t mean everybody knew about it, of course. But I think we made a bona-fide effort to reach out and make sure people were