"I’ve never even been to one of these meetings before," a Middletown resident whispered as she elbowed her way to a tiny open patch of wall to lean on at the over-capacity attended Township Committee meeting last night.
She wasn’t alone. Similar mutterings could be heard throughout what turned out to be one of the most raucous, crowded governing body meetings in years.
What was the monumental draw that raised the ire of so many concerned citizens, many of which were strangers to the municipal meeting process?
A new neighbor: Middletown Medical, a treatment facility for “opiate-dependent individuals,” according to its Web site — a methadone clinic. Methadone: It's the drug commonly used to rehabilitate heroin and other opiate addicts.
And this facility, located on Route 35, a state highway subject to state planning rule and protection, at Apple Farm Road, is open for business. Applebrook neighborhood residents are riled.
A group has mobilized, circulated flyers, collected funds and is in the process of hiring an attorney to plead their case and find a legal way to get the facility removed.
But, according to state and local rule and planning parameters, the township is at a stalemate to do any such thing. In fact, to somehow make it so, as residents demanded, would mean bending laws to a questionable breaking point and defending expensive lawsuits destined for loss, officials said.
But it took a while for those concerns to be voiced as officials conducted usual township business on the agenda and people there about their new neighbor hemmed, hawed, shifted and shouted out.
Hundreds packed the township meeting room and flowed into the hallway waiting for the open public comment portion of the meeting.
Applause, cheers and jeers broke out as the comment portion opened and all the way through.
Resident Diane Mullaney opened the comment portion with, “I am disappointed at the township committee’s total failure to protect my neighborhood!”
Mullaney went on to cite what she said were facts that “burglaries and other crimes increase (in neighborhoods) with the location of methadone clinics … they attract users to those seeking treatment.”
The audience cheered, applauded and even gave standing ovations throughout.
Mullaney went on to say that with the township’s recent ranking as one of the top places to live in the country, such a facility’s presence is not only a threat to that standing, but to residents’ safety and home and neighborhood values.
“The township failed us,” she reiterated, claiming that residents should have been forewarned of the medical facility taking residence in the spot.
The operators of the clinical practice, Pinnacle Treatment Centers, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pa., are tenants. They required no zoning variances or Planning Board hearings to move in and conduct business, only a certificate of occupancy, Township Attorney Brian Nelson said.
The area is zoned for business and the facility’s use is in compliance with all appropriate state statutes, master plan parameters and local ordinances. In fact, cautioned Nelson and Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante, there are myriad state laws that protect the rights of both the operators and patients of such clinics.
But residents persistently railed that township officials should have told them what was coming.
However, a building only requiring certificate of occupancy for a new tenant does not warrant any sort of resident notification when a use conforms, Mercantante said. The certificate was applied for in 2010.
“We have hundreds to thousands of certificates of occupancy to go through a year,” he said. “As long as all health, fire and safety measures have been met, there is no reason not to grant them.”
Residents balked and booed as officials made it clear that they legally cannot just revoke a certificate of occupancy because people don’t like who or what occupy the building.
They continued to shout out about warning residents and bulldozing legal mandates to “keep the neighborhood safe.” Several persisted in saying that the township did or should have known what was happening with the “clinic” and done something about it to stave it off, which officials pushed back would have been illegal.
“Let me be clear,” said Mayor Tony Fiore. “I fully understand your frustration. But to say that the Township Committee failed you is wrong. We were taken by just as much surprise as you were.”
The mayor’s statement was met with disbelief and defiance. People shouted out of turn and asked officials to “take a stand, fall on the sword. Do something to get this business out of there.”
Township Committeeman Steven Massell did say, “Candidly, we should have known.”
Fiore assured the crowd that extra police patrols had been assigned to pad the area with deterring presence.
Residents also balked at the idea of what they said would be turning their neighborhood into a “police state” with the added patrols.
Certainly, the mayor said, if it ever becomes evident that something within the facility is operating out-of-line in any way, the appropriate measures will be taken.
But it is operating within and protected by the law and zoning parameters.
Nelson cautioned that, however, officials must be cautious about their approach in that vein and any such statements that are made to deflect any notion of illegal bias against the patient population and/or operators.
But none of the officials’ assurances were good enough news for the crowd that jeered all the way out the meeting room doors.
“The township committee had nothing to do with this,” Fiore said outside of the meeting. “I find it ironic that some of the laws that were cited by the residents as their idea of a means to remove the facility are the exact same laws that prevent us from getting rid of it.”
The mayor said that he has been regaled with hate mail and messages on the subject for weeks with most everyone casting blame for the business' tenancy on the governing body solely.
Patch will provide updates and supplemental stories on the issue.