By Caitlin Andrews
Posted Oct. 14, 2015 at 10:33 PM
Updated at 10:49 PM
ROCHESTER — The City Council chambers erupted into cheers after the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 3 to 2 in favor of granting a variance request to the organizers for Hope on Haven Hill during a meeting held Wednesday night. The variance request will change the allowed number of residents at the 326 Rochester Hill Road residential home from six to eight, with a resident defined as someone over 12 months of age.
“We’re very excited, and hopeful, and grateful,” said Colene Arnold, director of Hope on Haven Hill and owner of the proposed site location. “I’m glad the board acknowledged the need for the facility and that they respect what kind of program we’re going to bring to Rochester.”
Hope on Haven Hill is a proposed nonprofit prenatal residential facility for women with a substance abuse disorder. Residency would be open to women who are pregnant or have just had a baby and are seeking treatment for a substance abuse disorder. Women would be allowed to live at the facility for up to one year after giving birth.
The facility would focus on comprehensive on-site counseling services and parenting classes and would provide transportation to detox facilities and prenatal care at Goodwin Community Center, Arnold said. Haven Hill would be the only facility of its kind in the area; the only other facility catering to pregnant women with substance disorders is Cynthia Day located in Nashua.
The decision came after nearly two hours of discussion in front of 40 audience members. The majority of those who spoke were in favor of the facility.
Arwin Wentworth, who works for the Children and Youth Family Services for Strafford County, said that a large barrier to women who are seeking treatment is not knowing how to do it while also taking care of their babies. She said that if people were concerned the facility would bring drug use then they were not aware of the drug use already present in Rochester.
“I have been in nearly every home and neighborhood in this community, and I can promise you that there is drug use in almost all of it,” she said. “It depends on if you want to see it. Drug use will not increase in that neighborhood, it’s already there.”
Those who spoke against the facility cited concerns around increased traffic and the potential for decreasing property value.
“Right now that property only has the Arnolds and their children along with one to two cars,” said Stephanie Deming, who is a landlord to a duplex abutting the proposed facility. “Between the residents, the medical staff, vendors delivering goods, and the police traffic, the amount of traffic that area sees is going to double, maybe quadruple.”
Deming went on to say that the residents of her duplex have written a letter to the city saying they will leave the duplex should the facility be established. She said that her concern was not with the facility itself, but that the directors were not going through the proper procedures.
“They’re trying to do this the cheap way by using their home, not the right way,” she said. “I’m worried about it being safe. They should find a parcel of land and designate it for institutional purposes, not in a residential area.”
Deming was also concerned about the possibility of people showing up and becoming violent at the facility.
“The Manchester YMCA had good intentions when they tried to facilitate father-son visitations, but that ended tragically after a father shot his son,” she said. “What if someone shows up who isn’t supposed to be there?”
Dean LeMire, substance misuse prevention coordinator for ONE Voice for Strafford County, said that he felt many of the concerns surrounding the facility came from stigma against those going through recovery.
“I used to work for Bonfire Recovery, a men-only sober living facility in Dover, and we had many of the same concerns when we first started — are the neighbors gonna hate us, will the city allow us to do this?” he said. “I can tell you that in 18 months of operation, we’ve never had a complaint from the neighbors. You wouldn’t even know a recovery facility was there.”
John Burns, treasurer for Haven Hill, identified himself as an addict in long-term recovery and a landlord. He said he felt the duplex would be more of a concern for property values than the facility.
“With tenants, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” he said.
Arnold later said that the facility would do a careful screening of each resident, including background checks, and that no alcohol or drugs would be allowed on site.
Burns went on to say that the level of care that would be provided at Haven Hill would be beyond a sober living facility.
“This is not a flop house, not transitional living,” he said. “This is a residential facility and is much more stable.”
He also said that keeping patients’ identities confidential would be top priority and the facility would not have a sign advertising its location.
Members of the board debated logistical aspects of the facility, such as whether the space would be big enough and whether the site would have enough bathrooms for the proposed number of women. The original proposal requested seven to ten women, along with their children, be allowed to live at the site.
“The facility is needed, but I can see overcrowding happening at this location,” Bob Goldstein said. “Something like this should be on five acres. It’s just too small.”
Robert Gates said that whether the septic system was adequate was not in the board’s purview.
“We’re here to decide if this is good for the community,” he said.
Chair of the ZBA Ralph Torr said he felt that infants should not count as residents and would have a minimal impact on the location’s facilities.
“Sometimes in an emergency you have to overlook things,” he said. “Everyone knows we have a drug problem; not just Rochester, but the entire country. I’m not going to be a stumbling block for these people. Let the state take care of what it needs to.”