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Vergennes receptive to treatment center

VERGENNES — Vergennes officials and some neighbors of the former Briarwood Manor nursing home at 1 Alden Place said they could support the proposed reuse of the property as a 19-bed residential treatment facility for young women dealing with substance abuse and self-injury issues — provided organizers can assure the building will be secure and the program is well-run.
“A lot depends on security, but if this is the type of program they want to put at 1 Alden Place, I personally don’t have a problem with it,” said Elizabeth Loven, a resident of the city’s Battery Hill neighborhood. Battery Hill is near the 9,146-square-foot building in which Valley Vista is proposing to open its Helping Others Pursue Empowerment (HOPE) program that will cater to adolescent girls and woman ages 13 to 22.
“I would rather see a program like this to help young people rather than see them in jail,” added Loven, a worker at the nearby Northlands Job Corps campus, which provides employment training for young people from urban areas who are also looking for opportunities to improve their lives.
Loven, other neighbors and city officials will get a chance to learn more about, and react to, the Valley Vista plan at an open house slated for Tuesday, Dec. 18, from 3 to 6:30 p.m. at 1 Alden Place. As first reported in the Addison Independent, Valley Vista — a private, 80-bed alcohol and chemical dependency treatment center serving men, women and adolescents in Bradford— is seeking to purchase the former Briarwood building located on 3.9 acres and staff it with more than 20 people who would help young women wean themselves from self-destructive behavior, including drug addiction and cutting or burning themselves.
Vergennes Zoning Administrator and City Manager Mel Hawley has already informed Valley Vista officials that their proposed use of Briarwood will not face local permitting hurdles, as a residential treatment facility is considered to be compatible, in terms of intensity of use, with the former nursing home. Briarwood has not operated as a nursing home for around two years now.
“Although a 19-bed community care facility ceased to operate for an undetermined amount of time, it can reopen without application for a zoning permit,” Hawley wrote in a March 16, 2012, letter to 1 Alden Place owner John LaBerge, who has had the property listed for $1.2 million.
Valley Vista co-owner Rick DiStefano said the 1 Alden Place property is perfectly suited for his organization’s needs and that no major repairs will be needed for its reopening as the HOPE program. He said patients would stay two weeks to 60 days in the unlocked facility and would be constantly chaperoned when outside of the Alden Place building. The private enterprise would pay municipal property taxes (around $18,000 annually), as well as encourage their personnel to occasionally offer their expertise in substance abuse education classes at local schools.
DiStefano said Valley Vista recently sent an informational letter to 1 Alden Place neighbors in advance of the Dec. 18 open house.
“We want to be a good neighbor,” DiStefano said.
That’s good news to city officials, who acknowledged the need for substance abuse treatment facilities to tackle a drug problem to which no Vermont community seems to be immune. Vergennes has held some packed public meetings on the issue of drug-related crime during the past year.
“I definitely think that any type of effort we make with (substance-abuse) treatment will be beneficial,” said Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel.
“We have a drug epidemic in our state and we need to take some drastic measures to turn things around, and treatment is just one of (those measures),” he added. “If we don’t lessen the demand for drugs, we are going to be overrun.”
That said, Merkel is concerned about the Valley Vista program being secure — both for the patients’ sake as well as for the neighbors’ peace of mind.
“Substance-abuse patients are vulnerable, and people selling drugs are looking for people who are vulnerable,” Merkel said.
Vergennes Mayor Mike Daniels, like others, is also concerned about security.
“As with any facility such as this, there needs to be a proper security plan and to make sure they do what they say they are going to do,” Daniels said. “Our job is to remind them if their plan doesn’t work.”
But assuming their plan does work, Daniels sees a program that could be beneficial to the young patients as well as priming the local economy with 20 new jobs. Last month, UTC Aerospace (formerly Goodrich Corp.) eliminated 24 jobs at its Vergennes plant.
“In today’s labor market, we need to be getting new jobs,” Daniels said.
TRACK RECORD IN BRADFORD
Hawley said Valley Vista’s has a good operating track records in Bradford, and he is optimistic the same pattern would occur in Vergennes.
“These are not people with criminal backgrounds; these are people with substance abuse problems and they are trying to get treatment,” Hawley said. “I don’t see cause for concern.”
City officials did voice concerns back in 2005 about a proposal by the Counseling Service of Addison County and Burlington’s Howard Center for Human Services to renovate the Briarwood property to house up to 10 non-violent psychiatric patients who medical professionals believed were ready for a partial transition to a community setting rather than a continued hospital stay. Officials at the time said their opposition to the plan was not based on prejudice but on their assertion that the city was already doing enough for the state and region by hosting the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter and Northlands Job Corps.
The Counseling Service and the Howard Center ultimately withdrew the application and the property was briefly resurrected as a nursing home by a group known as Alden Place Residential Care Home LLC. The Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) during the spring of 2010 revoked the license of the operator for a series of 23 alleged violations that DAIL Deputy Commissioner Brendan Hogan said affected “the health and safety of the residents.”
Hogan at the time said most the alleged violations stemmed from improper and inadequate oversight and staffing; essentially, he said, there were at times either not enough employees or enough qualified employees at the home to meet what he called “the clinical care needs” of its residents.
Now Valley Vista wants to take a shot at bringing the Alden Place property back into use.
Mary Sullivan and her husband own a home on Battery Hill that they are in the process of selling. Sullivan, a longtime educator, said she wants to learn more about Valley Vista’s plans but sees much to like about the current proposal.
“Any programs that can help young people who are struggling with substance abuse are a positive thing,” Sullivan said. “I am cautiously optimistic that this would be a good thing for the community.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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