The opioid crisis has come down hard on Fall River: Each year, rescue crews revive hundreds of people who have overdosed, and dozens more die; 50 babies out of every 1,000 births are born dependent on drugs.
But even amid struggles to address the problem, city officials are facing allegations of discrimination against addicted people, because they blocked a proposal to build a new treatment facility.
The addiction-treatment program SSTAR, a fixture in this city of 88,000 for more than four decades, has sued the city’s building inspector and zoning board for denying a permit to build a 60-bed treatment center with outpatient offices at the site of a burned-down mill.
Separately, US Attorney Andrew Lelling is investigating whether the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it denied the permit, according to a letter from Lelling obtained by the Globe.
The city’s lawyer, Joseph Macy, said the permit denial reflects a straightforward application of the law: Zoning rules don’t allow such a facility at that site, he said.
But Nancy E. Paull, SSTAR’s longtime CEO, calls it yet another example of how bias against people with addiction stymies efforts to help them. “It defies any rational understanding of addiction,” Paull said.
SSTAR and city officials will meet Thursday in Superior Court in New Bedford. SSTAR is asking the court to order the city to issue the building permit immediately, saying that failing to do so by next month could prevent the project from obtaining needed tax credits.
The Fall River dispute is happening amid a statewide effort to increase access to addiction treatment, as deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply continues to claim four or five lives a day across Massachusetts.
Paull said SSTAR has been looking to expand for more than three years, as the opioid crisis overwhelmed its two existing facilities, both in Fall River. About one in five people who seek care cannot find a bed on the day they inquire, and a large majority of those served already live in Fall River, she said.
But the proposal ran into opposition even before SSTAR paid $675,000 for the three-acre plot at 75 Weaver St. in February 2017.
The plan calls for building a three-story, 43,500-square-foot facility that would house medical offices providing primary care and medications to treat addiction, plus 30 beds for detox and 30 for post-detox treatment.
The city’s North End Neighborhood Association expressed fears about increased crime and asserted that Fall River already has enough treatment facilities.
State Representative Carole Fiola, whose district encompasses the mill site, has opposed the proposal in columns in The Herald News of Fall River. She argued that while it’s important to address the opioid crisis, Fall River is already doing its fair share and “it’s time other communities step up.”
In July 2018, Fall River’s director of inspectional services, Glenn Hathaway, refused to issue a permit for the proposed facility, saying that only the medical offices are permissible in that zone, not the inpatient centers. SSTAR appealed to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which voted 3 to 2 in November to uphold the permit denial. The next month, SSTAR sued Hathaway and the zoning board.
Much of the opposition focused on the fact that the medical offices would provide methadone, along with buprenorphine and naltrexone, the other drugs used to treat addiction. Methadone treatment requires daily visits by patients and “always brings challenges,” Fiola said, “because you’re working pretty much exclusively with a fragile population.” People waiting in line outside methadone clinics can attract dealers, Fiola contended.
Vic DiGravio, president and CEO of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, a trade group for Massachusetts treatment providers, said there is no evidence to support Fiola’s contention. More than 40 methadone clinics operate throughout the state without reports of problems, he said.
“When a community has a cancer cluster, no one complains about there being too many oncology clinics,” DiGravio said. “Nancy [Paull] is trying to provide needed services to a community that desperately needs them.”
SSTAR’s suit asserts that city officials bent to pressure from “residents who are hostile to persons with disabilities and/or are motivated by stereotypes about the disabled.” It alleges violations of laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled people, a category that includes those suffering from addiction.
Macy, the city’s lawyer, said that neighbors’ opposition did not motivate the decision to deny the permit.
“As far as I can tell, the building inspector did his job as he saw it, and the zoning board their job as they see it,” Macy said.
But SSTAR asserts that Fall River did not correctly interpret the Massachusetts law known at the Dover Amendment, which exempts nonprofit organizations from zoning restrictions when they use the land primarily for educational purposes. The proposed center “continues its traditional mission of fulfilling a predominantly educational purpose,” which seeks to teach “basic skills to be functioning members of society,” the suit states.
In applying the Dover Amendment, the courts have defined “educational” broadly, said Art Kreiger, a Boston lawyer with expertise in land use and municipal affairs, who is not involved with the Fall River case. “Education does not have to be formal, it does not have to be classroom-based, but it has to teach skills equipping people to function in various aspects of daily life,” he said.
Kreiger called the Fall River case “a difficult one. . . . Clearly there’s some educational component. But a lot of it is treatment and detox.”
In October, the Land Court ruled that McLean Hospital was not eligible for a Dover exemption for a residential treatment program for mentally ill boys, saying its services would be therapeutic rather than educational. But in separate cases in 1999 and 2006, lower courts found that inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment programs were educational facilities under Dover.
Another issue hovers in the background: The SSTAR project would be located at the northern end of a proposed 68-acre waterfront urban renewal district under consideration by the Fall River Redevelopment Authority.
Fiola’s husband runs a nonprofit economic development group that works with the redevelopment authority. But she stressed that she would be against a treatment facility in Fall River no matter where it was located, and said the urban renewal effort was not a factor in her opposition.