State Faces Challenge To Post-Irene Mental Health Facility

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A legal challenge may delay plans to open a secure residential facility for people with mental illness displaced by Tropical Storm Irene.

The state wanted to open the facility in Middlesex this January.

But a couple that lives next door is worried about the safety of the seven-bed facility. They’ve taken their concerns to Environmental Court.

When Tropical Storm Irene flooded the state hospital in Waterbury more than a year ago, patients were dispersed around the state. The damage strained hospital emergency services as people waited days for a bed to become available.

Patrick Flood is the state’s mental health commissioner. He says the state is eager to open a temporary seven-bed facility in Middlesex to relieve pressure on the system and to buy time while a permanent 25-bed hospital in Berlin is built.

"You know, we still believe we’re in an emergency situation, a crisis situation," Flood says. "It’s only a seven-bed residential facility, but the reality is that there are people right now today sitting in acute care hospitals who really need to be stepped down to this type of facility."

But the state’s emergency is not a crisis for neighbor Brian Hannon. He and his family live next door to the proposed site, which is near the Middlesex exit on Interstate 89.

"I moved to Vermont for a certain way of life and to raise my kids up here. And I’m concerned for their safety, for one," he says. "It’s essentially a jail that’s going to be going behind my house."

Hannon has appealed a decision by the Middlesex Zoning Board of Adjustment to approve the project. He says he’s worried that the temporary facility will hurt the value of his home. And he says his eight and 10 year old children would be playing outside within sight and earshot of the psychiatric patients.

"This facility is as close as it gets. And it’s not a permanent building," he says. "It’s basically trailer units that are pieced together; it’s a mobile facility."

But Flood says the people who would live there are not dangerous. And he says the facility would be locked, and staffed by experienced mental health workers.

"And keep in mind these people are not acutely ill. They’re far more predictable than somebody who has just come into the hospital," he says. "So they’re being treated, and they’re stable, and they really do not represent much of a threat or any threat at all, to the neighborhood. Not to mention, there just happens to be a police barracks next door."

Besides the state police, the property also includes the state archives and public records buildings. Hannon says he is not re-assured by the proximity of law enforcement to the proposed residential facility.

He says his house was burglarized three years ago. And whoever did it broke into a door that faces the state police barracks.

"There’s a direct line of sight from the state police barracks to my house. So I don’t know how that would factor into the safety aspect because someone was willing to go ahead and break into my house," he says. "They didn’t care that the state police barracks were right there."

The state had hoped to begin moving people to the Middlesex site by the first of the year. But now that the case is in court that timetable may be delayed. Mental Health Commissioner Flood says the state decided not to buy out Hannon’s property, but will ask the court to hold an expedited hearing on the zoning appeal.

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