Maple Street in Morrisville could become home to a sober-living house in the next few weeks, despite a court appeal of a local decision to allow the recovery home in the village.
“We are opening a recovery residence for six women on Maple Street in Morrisville,” said David Riegel, executive director and co-founder of the Vermont Foundation of Recovery, the nonprofit that will oversee and operate the home.
The sober-living home, which is meant to house people who have already undergone treatment and are taking the next step in recovery, will be at 360 Maple St. near Washington Highway. The Morristown Development Review Board voted 6-1 on June 12 to approve the site-plan application. The building is a former apartment building still owned by Demars Properties LLC.
Several residents turned out June 12 to oppose the project. Local approval of the project was appealed to Vermont Environmental Court on July 11.
Riegel and his staff began working on the house right after the local approval. Furnishings are in the rooms, and beds were scheduled to arrive Wednesday, July 31.
“We’ve been accepting applications from women to live in the residence,” Riegel said.
He found out about the court appeal on Tuesday, when someone from Demars Properties let him know.
He hasn’t received any official notification.
“We have not been contacted by the town of Morristown in any way, nor had we been contacted by environmental court,” he said.
Morristown Town Administrator Dan Lindley told the select board July 29 that an appeal had been filed, and that the board had party status to the legal case.
Riegel said his organization will certainly comply with any court decision, but he and his staff will continue working on the project until they are explicitly told to stop.
With beds delivered on Wednesday, he expected the first few residents to move in by the end of the week, or early next week.
Vermont Foundation of Recovery already operates five recovery or sober-living houses in Burlington, Essex Junction, South Burlington, St. Albans and St. Johnsbury. The organization’s website states that its sixth and seventh sober living homes are “coming soon to Barre and Morrisville.”
Foundation of Recovery homes tend to be gender-specific; the organization’s newest home in St. Johnsbury offers six beds to men, while the planned home in Morrisville would provide housing for up to six women.
At the hearing June 12, Riegel said the goal is to have six women living in the three-bedroom apartment “in a family setting.” Individuals in the program must commit to live in the home for at least 90 days, and many stay for at least five months.
The organization aims to help individuals who have finished substance abuse treatment but are unsure of the next step to take. The group’s mission is to “create a network of Recovery Homes (clean and sober-living homes)” to help people who have suffered from addiction reconnect with society, part of the transition from addiction to recovery to independent living.
Affordable housing is an issue across Vermont, Riegel said, and that’s “no different for folks in early recovery.”
“Our first and foremost goal is to provide safe, stable, drug- and alcohol-free housing to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts,” the organization’s website states.
If people don’t have a safe, sober place to live and begin rebuilding their lives after treatment, they often return to the same environment they were living in before, Riegel said, and “it ends up being really challenging for them to stay sober.”
Riegel sees homes like his organization’s, and the others that a statewide alliance could eventually help operate, as a key step in Vermont’s work to help people get and stay sober, rather than punishing them.
“The state has invested a lot of money in helping people stay sober,” Riegel said. He and many of his staff and volunteers have taken that road to recovery themselves and have been sober for years or even decades now, but proper housing is essential for people just starting out on the path to sober living.
“We’re moving down that road as a state. Now that we have treatment options, what happens to people after that treatment? What does recovery look like?” Riegel asked.
Morrisville Development Review Board members had several questions at that June 12 hearing. Laura Streets asked Riegel and the organization’s director of operations, Andrew Gonyea, if any staff would be living on site in Morrisville.
The short answer was no, Gonyea told the board; no staff members live at the house full-time. But Riegel explained to the News & Citizen that each house has a paid staff member who acts as house manager and is “responsible for proper maintenance of the home.” House managers work up to 15 hours a week at that job, he said, and are available at other times as needed.
Gonyea also oversees all the homes, Riegel said, and each home has a staff of volunteers who serve as mentors to the people living there. The organization makes a point of hiring local people to be house manager and mentors, he said, helping to ensure they can help the people living in that specific home.
Vermont Foundation of Recovery also maintains strong relationships with organizations such as the North Central Vermont Recovery Center, based in Morrisville. And, Riegel said, other house managers and his organization’s board of directors are always available to respond “quickly and appropriately” whenever needed at a particular home.
Riegel said an experienced house manager has already been appointed to run the Morrisville home until a local manager can be hired and trained. That job has already been posted, and a few board members are stepping in to be mentors at the home until more local volunteers join up.
A concerned community
Several residents opposed having the home on Maple Street. Robin Pugh questioned if such a populated neighborhood with many children is a good spot for a recovery home, a sentiment Vivian Norton, whose daughter and granddaughter recently moved to the neighborhood, echoed.
John Rodriguez, an adjoining property owner, said the home is just a few dozen feet from his own land, raising concerns about privacy and property values.
Select board chair Bob Beeman said four of the five board members opposed having the home on Maple Street.
Riegel knows the thought of a recovery house in your backyard can be a disconcerting one, but he hopes that, through education, people will accept what the home is doing for people right there in their backyard.
“Recovery residences are scary for people not familiar with them, I know that,” Riegel said. He hopes people remain open-minded, and learn the good that is being done there.
“It’s no secret there’s an issue,” Riegel said. “We’re dealing with an opioid epidemic. Folks are dying.”
People struggling with addiction, and people trying to get sober, are “already in our communities,” Riegel said. Communities have a choice, he said: Acknowledging the reality and “trying to help them, or pretending they don’t exist.”
After taking comments at the June 12 meeting, the development review board added some stipulations to the application, mainly dealing with parking, then approved the site plan 6-1.
Board chair Gary Nolan was the sole member opposed; voting in favor were board members Karyn Allen, Susanna Guthmann Burnham, Laura Streets, Paul Trudell and Chris Wiltshire, along with alternate Andrew Strniste.
The board did include a proviso that, “to ensure compatibility with the host neighborhood,” the application for the home be reviewed after six months, one year and two years.
Riegel is comfortable with opening the home to a few women right now because he believes the appeal centers on the fact that the local zoning permit allows up to six people to live in the home.
360 Maple St. is in a medium-density residential zone, which would normally only allow four unrelated people to live in a home together, but allows more for families.
A key part of the Vermont Foundation of Recovery model of success is promoting a family-centric, supportive environment among the six residents of each home. Essentially, the women in the home are a family, Riegel said.
“A sense of community is a major value of recovery homes,” Riegel said. “Having six people living there to have connections and support each other in a family environment.”
A statewide study identified Morrisville as a possible site for a recovery home, Riegel said, and he and his staff thought their model of a family and home fit in with Morristown’s zoning regulations.
Those zoning regulations contain a second definition of family that relates to how and to what extent a group of people live and interact with each other, Riegel said. Six women living together in a Vermont Foundation Recovery home fit that second definition of family, he said, which helped lead to the approval of their permit.
Even if the court appeal delays or even blocks having six women live at the home, Riegel’s confident that up to four women could still live there.
“We will not be a six right away,” anyway, Riegel said. “We’ll start with two or three, and we could stay at four for now if that’s the decision,” reiterating that the organization will comply with whatever decision is reached at the state level.
A more expansive string of recovery houses could be in the works under a statewide alliance that Riegel and his staff are helping to get off the ground, but they also are concentrating on the here and now.
“We’re trying to do our small part to open and operate this string of recovery houses,” he said. “Fingers crossed that things move forward in a positive direction, and a safe and responsible way.”