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The Madison Planning & Zoning Commission is considering a Special Exception Permit to use a former preschool facility on Old Toll Road to provide professional outpatient behavioral health services for adults. (Photo by Jesse Williams/The Source | Buy This Photo)
A proposed treatment center for addicts in North Madison is drawing an outcry from neighbors with almost two dozen banding together to oppose the new facility, mostly on the belief that its clients would pose a safety hazard or engage in criminal behavior, which has not been an issue at other similar facilities.
Dr. Michael Hinkley, who runs an existing treatment and sober living facility in Madison, is seeking to expand to the property at 503 Toll Road, which was formerly a preschool. The facility would not be licensed to administer drugs or perform medical procedures.
Though questions of whether the proposed business aligns with zoning uses in the district are complex, and have also been the subject of debate, many of the residents opposing the treatment center focused on anticipated risks to children and other residents living in the area, though studies have not linked addiction treatment facilities with crime.
A letter filed with the Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) by attorney Steve Rickman through the law offices of Zangari Cohn of New Haven, petitioned for the denial of the application on behalf of “at least 23 families” in the area.
That letter accuses Hinkley of “material omissions” in his application, saying that he has understated how intensive the treatment center will be based on information provided about the business to state licensing agencies, and asserts the business does not fit Madison’s allowed uses in the specified zone.
It also specifically cites the neighbors’ fears, referencing “concern about the harm the proposed facility may cause to their families and properties. Because many children and adolescents reside in the neighborhood, parents are concerned about having persons with substance use disorders.”
On the technical side, Town Planner Dave Anderson said in a letter that the zoning question in play was whether the facility qualifies as a medical office or a “private hospital, sanatorium, or clinic” under Madison’s regulations.
Anderson also noted that some of elements of the proposed programs Hinkley filed with the state were “not detailed in the statement of use submitted” to the PZC. He asked commission members to “evaluate consistency” between the differing statements.
At a May 21 virtual public hearing on the application attended by more than 100 people, a slew of residents voiced their opinions with many focusing on the anticipated negative impacts of the facility and its clients, including comments that ranged from concerned to hostile toward the people who would be served by the facility.
One resident, who identified himself as Rob Szczesny, questioned why Hinkley proposed a dedicated environment for LGBTQ clients at the facility, quoting the application as saying that group is “at high risk for overdose, suicide, and other poor health outcomes.”
Hinkley said that LGBTQ people are severely underserved in the medical community, which is something he and others are trying to rectify.
“It’s not that the clients that are coming to me are overdosing or having suicides—that’s not the case,” he said. “It’s the case that I do treat LGBT people, as many therapists do, and that population...are at a higher risk of all those things.”
It’s “obviously very concerning for homeowners to have that type of population that you’re saying so close to a residential neighborhood,” Szczesny responded.
Madison Police Chief Jack Drumm spoke briefly at the meeting, saying he and the department had heard concerns from residents about specific issues with the facility, including whether it was an overnight facility, which Hinkley made clear it would not be.
Hinkley said that he had never needed emergency services of any kind at his other Madison facility, which has operated since 2015.
In letters and in their comments at the meeting, other residents and neighbors offered condemnations of the facility and its clients, with many again focusing on perceived safety issues, though some also cited a possible reduction in property values due to the facility, an outcome that is supported by at least some recent data, though a 2019 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that these claims were “potentially overstated.”
Other residents questioned the need of having the facility in a rural, residential area, and seemed to oppose significant development on the property of any kind. There were also questions at the hearing about operating procedure—whether clients would be allowed to smoke on the property, and whether Hinkley would be purchasing the property in the future.
Board of Finance Chair Jean Fitzgerald spoke at the meeting, expressing her concern about vagueness in the application, from how Hinkley characterized his clientele to the hours of operation, which currently allows the business to be open until 10 p.m.
“This whole presentation has left a lot of questions in my mind,” Fitzgerald said.
The PZC can set restrictions on hours, according to Anderson, and Katy Armenia, a Madison lawyer who is representing Hinkley, said working out those specifics is “putting the cart before the horse.”
“We’re trying to determine whether or not we can even have a business operation here, so that then we can more appropriately formulate what the sign is going to look like, what the lighting is going to look like, what the hours are,” she said.
As far as how he would address objections raised by residents, Hinkley said that about two weeks ago he sent out a letter with his phone number to nearby property owners, asking people to contact him with their concerns. He said he only heard directly from one person.
“People have an emotional reaction to addiction,” Hinkley told The Source. “But what you see is, ‘I don’t want this near me, I think it’s dangerous.’ And when I actually look at who is coming to the program, it’s...Madison people, who have a profession and are trying to find their way back to active employment, engage with their families.”
At the meeting, Hinkley also decried the stigma against those suffering from addiction, saying that he hoped people around the country would continue to come to a better understanding and have empathy for these folks through education.
Hinkley also drew a distinction between his clients, who he said are people who are seeking help on their own volition, and those who are mandated to seek treatment by courts, a demographic he said is not serving at the new facility.
Seeking Clearer Definition
From a zoning standpoint, Rickman cited Hinkley’s own statements and proposals in his simultaneous seeking of state licenses for the facility, in which he used very different definitions and descriptions than what he used in his application to the PZC.
In the state application filed for emergency approval due to the pandemic, Hinkley said his facility would “[free] up beds at inpatient detox and intensive residential facilities that offer medically necessary 24-hour treatment and not partial hospital services,” which Rickman argued was a much more intense use than described in the application to the PZC, and did not fit Madison’s zoning code for that area.
Other parts of Hinkley’s state application, including usages of the words “clinic” and “intensive outpatient,” should be interpreted to conflict with his stated intention for the property, Rickman said, which is for the treatment of “low- to moderate-severity” substance abuse and psychiatric disorders.
“It’s understated, and there are material omissions, and that’s what’s going on here,” Rickman said at the public hearing. “I think that all the vague answers you heard points up exactly that problem.”
Peter Rockholtz, a consultant hired by Hinkley to navigate issues with state licensure, said that often these terms have different meanings within the medical community, with “intensive” referring to people with co-occurring diseases rather than more severe cases, and state statutes and insurance companies requiring certain licenses that might appear to be more intense than Hinkley’s stated use.
Certain state applications also require specific language that doesn’t necessarily translate to common parlance, according to Rockholtz
The PZC did not make any ruling on the application, with Chair Ron Clark saying he did not think it was realistic to sort through all the issues around the development in one night. The application will be discussed again at the PZC’s next planning meeting on Thursday, June 4.
A message left at Rickman’s office by The Source was not returned.