A plan to convert an 8,000-square-foot building in an industrial area of Peeksill into an outpatient methadone treatment center has some residents reeling. Whether motivated by fear of stereotypical notions of what addiction treatment looks like or other concerns, from potentially declining property values to traffic congestion, those who oppose the idea are united in their resolve to prevent the clinic from opening its doors.
The unfolding controversy can now add a lawsuit and the resignation of a city planning official to the mix, as the Peekskill Common Council officially decided to challenge the Planning Commission’s decision to allow a group called Renaissance Project to open the proposed treatment center.
“I have lived in Peekskill since the late eighties; I have no children. I am doing this for the city that promised a renaissance in the late eighties and—no pun intended—it wasn’t going to be a renaissance ‘project,’” says Wendy Kelly, who has organized petitions in opposition to the clinic.
Though the lot where the proposed clinic will be housed is technically zoned as an industrial area, the surrounding streets are residential; the street directly parallel is home to the Dunbar Heights housing projects.
For more than three decades, a trailer on the grounds of the Hudson Valley Hospital Center provided methadone and drug rehabilitation services for about 230 drug-addicted patients monthly. Methadone is used to treat heroin and other opiate addictions, and many critics of the drug, which gained FDA approval in 1947, take issue with the fact that patients may become dependent on it and that, if they are not treated every day, their withdrawals become more intense and difficult to manage.
The HVHC decided to close the program because it was no longer financially viable: The clinic had not been profitable for 10 years because the federal government cut the level of reimbursement funds to the hospital, prompting HVHC to seek a private-sector partner to take over the program. Renaissance Project was its successor, and one with credentials: The company already runs other drug treatment facilities in Westchester, though this would be its first center focusing solely on methadone maintenance.
With Hudson Valley Hospital’s methadone center closed, five other methadone clinics remain in the County, including one at Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers. “I have the utmost respect for their organization,” says Susan Anderson, director of Saint Joseph’s Methadone Program. “Renaissance Project has been in the substance abuse business for a very long time, maybe even longer than I’ve been alive.”
In 2008, Renaissance Project, a not-for-profit group, first expressed interest in the property at 3 Corporate Drive. It closed on the sale of the property in 2010, but many residents did not seem to fully grasp what that might mean until this year, when Renaissance Project organizers held public notification meetings and submitted plans to the City’s Planning Commission, which were approved.
The Planning Commission voted in favor of the project in June, a decision that the city’s Corporation Counsel voided because of the Commission’s failure to notify the Town of Cortlandt—the border of which falls within 500 feet of the facility’s designated site—of the proposal. Another voting date was then set for October, with notification meetings scheduled for September, one of which was held on the anniversary of 9/11, causing some residents to complain that a number of them were unable to attend.
At that point, Cortlandt Supervisor Linda Puglisi wrote three letters to the Peekskill Planning Commission about the issue, because the clinic would be “immediately adjacent” to Cortlandt. Specifically, she highlighted the need for environmental impact studies about how the clinic, which expects to serve approximately 275 clients per month, would handle that degree of increased traffic. It is unclear whether Puglisi’s letters prompted the outcry, but, in recent months, Mayor Foster also has cited the lack of traffic or environmental studies as reasons to abandon the project.
While the potential for increased traffic is a valid issue, the underlying question is whether the concern of some of those opposed to the clinic is simply rooted in NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), as they may see the inherent value in the project but simply don’t want it to be located near their homes. “Drug addicts are no good for any community. Keep them at HVHC where they belong,” Kelly says.
Administrators from the other methadone maintenance programs in Westchester say the opposition in Peekskill is hardly unique. “It begins with a general stigma in society with respect to both alcohol and substance abuse, and that’s one of the biggest challenges that we in the field face,” says Brian Kaley, vice president of Behavioral Health Services at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers. “People have images of criminality linked to drug use, so that colors the whole image of a methadone clinic.”
The prospect of patients wandering around the neighborhoods surrounding the clinic is one that is taken seriously by both facility supervisors and the federal government, which imposes mandates on methadone centers to punish enrollees caught loitering around the clinic after their daily treatment. “One of the worst things a methadone patient can do is loiter in front of the program, because if they are found loitering, they’re automatically discharged from the program,” explains Anderson, who adds that such action doesn’t happen very often, “because they know that this is going to happen. It’s something that’s drummed into them from admission.”
Another point of contention among residents who oppose the clinic is the idea of patients driving their vehicles while impaired. While some studies suggest patients’ tolerance is such that their ability to drive is not impaired, manufacturers still warn that the drug could have such an effect. “A patient who is on methadone does have an impaired ability to drive, although they are protected and allowed to do so because methadone is a ‘medication,’” asserts Evan Liaskos, the owner and chef of Cortlandt Colonial Restaurant, located about a quarter-mile from the site of the proposed clinic. “I am concerned for my family, clients, and staff having to share the road with these individuals.”
Brian Dyer, head of Northbrook Contracting Corp., whose office is located on Corporate Drive, wrote a letter of complaint to the Peekskill Planning Commission explaining that one of his biggest concerns with the project is that the road, which he describes as “a glorified driveway” that his company technically owns, will now be used by up to 275 more people on a regular basis. “Do you expect me to absorb the additional costs to maintain the pavement for the benefit of the Renaissance clinic? Even seasonally, am I expected to clear the pavement of snow by 6 am because the [clinic] opens for business at 6 am?” he writes. Dyer thinks it will negatively affect his business by “without question, significantly lowering the value of my property. I trust you would agree that a methadone clinic 300 feet from my front door is not an attraction to prospective buyers of my property.”
Finally, he writes, “I am concerned about my potential liability if someone falls or has an auto accident on Corporate Drive. The likelihood of such an incident increases exponentially with 250 or more people either awaiting their methadone treatment or who have just received their methadone. There is no dispute—methadone is an opiate…one which will surely impair judgment and motor skills.”
Anderson disagrees, saying that driving abilities have not been an issue for her patients. “We have limo drivers here, we have bus drivers here; I am not violating their privacy in saying so, but there are no issues with driving,” she asserts. Methadone has an extremely long half-life, meaning that the dose remains in the patient’s system for two days as opposed to a street narcotic, which lasts for just a few hours. Many in the rehabilitation field also point out that those taking methadone often get enough medication in a single visit to last a week—or even a month—reducing the potential number of patients on the grounds per day. “It’s perfect for people who are addicted to opiates,” Anderson says. “Once they take it, they don’t get sick. It’s such a long-acting medication, you don’t get high and then get sick right after [as you would with a street narcotic]—instead, you end up with a very even mood, and these moods take away cravings to use other narcotics.”
Bill Magwood, the head of Renaissance Project, refused to comment for this article at the request of the company’s legal counsel, saying only that the legal tussles between the Peekskill Planning Commission and the City Council are not his matters
In response to residents’ complaints, Dahlia Austin, director of Drug and Alcohol Services for the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, says the positive track record from the clinic’s time on the HVHC grounds should put some concerns to rest. “There hasn’t been a problem at the current location, so I don’t anticipate any change,” she says. “[Opposition from neighbors] probably comes with the territory, but it is zoned for industrial and commercial use—though I certainly understand some of the issues that the residents are raising.”
Local politicians are following their constituents’ lead. Mayor Foster, who serves as the head of the City’s Common Council, says that it will challenge the approval on the grounds that it is a zoning issue, since Renaissance Project filed its facility as a professional office space and not a medical clinic. “From the Council’s perspective, we would be just as upset if it were a cancer clinic or a chemo clinic or a dialysis center or so on,” Mayor Foster says. “Medical clinics and facilities have much more intense use and traffic patterns. The whole point of zoning is that compatible businesses are located near each other. You don’t stick an industrial business in the middle of a residential area.”
No environmental impact report or traffic study was ever completed, and the Commission voted again in October—this time, unanimously—to approve the Renaissance Project application, effectively giving the clinic the go-ahead to begin construction.
With that final nod, the Planning Commission inadvertently began a new fight, as the Common Council hired a law firm to help it use the zoning issue as grounds for revoking the site approval. The Common Council officially has no say on any application’s approval, but the Council is needed for various building permits that would invariably become stumbling blocks down the road. “The Council feels that the Planning Commission acted in error here, and didn’t consider the intensity of this use. The zoning category of professional office was not meant to encompass that intense use,” says lawyer Robert Spolzino. On November 13, the Common Council decided to pursue legal action against the Planning Commission on the grounds that it acted “arbitrarily and capricious, contrary to law, and in excess of its jurisdiction” in approving the project’s proposal.
Spolzino explains that it is asking the court to decide “whether or not to set aside the Planning Commission’s decision” granting Renaissance Project approval. If the court does so, Renaissance will have to start the process of getting zoning rights all over again. However, if the court rules to uphold the decision, then the Common Council will have to reassess its options again.
The Council’s decision to file suit was the final straw for Dwight Douglas, chairman of the Planning Commission, who resigned the following day. He points out that the initial approval for the plan’s zoning came from the mayor’s own staff—before ever being voted on by the Planning Commission. “I think it’s misguided. I don’t think that the Common Council and the mayor acted appropriately.”
While the verdict may not be final for months, the lawsuit itself has made Peekskill history as it is the first time that the city government has sued itself.
Said Mayor Foster at the November 13 Council meeting: “At the end of the day, if we believe that our laws are not being upheld, it is the duty of this Council to make sure that they are upheld.”
Meghan Keneally, born and raised in Westchester, is a freelance journalist based in Manhattan. A political fiend, she is interested in the ways government influences daily life.