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After five separate meetings and public hearings stretching over the course of two months, the controversial application for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in North Madison was conditionally approved by the Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) by a thin 5-4 margin this month, ending an unusual process that saw virulent opposition by neighbors and two separate delays after the PZC declined to take a vote at previous hearings.
“A difficult thing to do, but we went about it the proper way to preserve the fairness of the whole process,” PZC Chair Ron Clark said following the final vote.
The lengthy process was partially due to the controversy and complexity of the application, and partially due to PZC members missing previous meetings. At two previous public hearings, the commission could only field eight members, meaning a vote could have resulted in a 4-4 tie and a denial of the application.
Clark made it clear that he did not want the process to be carried out so irregularly, though he personally voted against the approval of the facility.
The application, which first came before the PZC and the public late in May, was submitted by Dr. Michael Hinkley, a former Catholic priest who already operates a therapy practice and rehab center in Madison. The North Madison facility will serve recovering addicts in group and individual therapy sessions on the property, which used to be a preschool.
At least 23 neighbors banded together and hired legal counsel to oppose the facility, with objections ranging from an alleged lack of candor by Hinkley on his intentions for the property to unsupported claims the facility is likely to bring crime or dangerous people into the area.
Hinkley has said that the facility will be a low-intensity, isolated setting for mostly affluent clients seeking a specific kind of addiction treatment, though both the neighbor group and Town Planner Dave Anderson raised concerns about a simultaneous application submitted for state licensure which used terms like “clinic” and “intensive outpatient” when referring to the facility.
Hinkley explained these discrepancies as different terminology used by the more medically oriented state agencies, arguing the facility is closer to a professional office than a medical clinic, which was the primary question decided by the PZC, as a medical clinic would not have been allowed under Madison’s regulations.
Medication will not be dispensed at the facility, according to the application.
The PZC also had Town Attorney Ira Bloom attend previous public hearings, and also asked Anderson to draft language explaining the commission’s thought processes; those documents could be used if there was an appeal by either the neighbor group or the applicant, depending on the final vote.
Attorney Steve Rickman, who is representing the neighbor group, declined to comment on any specifics, but said there was a possibility of “developments” regarding the application in the next week or so.
Early in the final meeting considering the application on July 16, the PZC first took a straw poll and determined the application would be approved by the 5-4 margin. Members had a chance to state their positions, and also hammer out a few final conditions for the approval.
“There’s no medications being dispensed, there’s no acute care, there are no walk-ins, there are no beds—these are counseling sessions that are done perhaps longer than usual...in my mind, the stated use within the application, this use fits the [regulations] as an office,” said Commissioner Joel Miller.
“I believe it is a clinic, the application is for a clinic, and that does not fit our regulations for this property,” said Commissioner Jim Matteson. “There has been overwhelming pushback from the community surrounding...this facility, where there’s a great deal of concern about this facility going in...questions about property values perhaps lowered. And so for those two reasons, I am against the application.”
There has been some scientific evidence that an addiction treatment facility like this could lower property values, though a 2019 study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that “anecdotal NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] concerns regarding the stigma associated with being located in close proximity to an [addiction treatment facility], and related reductions in residential property values, may not be fully warranted.”
Studies have also failed to show that addiction treatment facilities increase crime more than a grocery store or other comparable business.
Hinkley told The Source that he had not been contacted by any of the neighbors since the approval, but that he hoped to keep a dialogue open and continue to educate people in the community.
“A lot of this was about the stigma around addicts and addiction,” he said.
Hinkley also said he hoped to remain “very sensitive to what the neighborhood feels” as he moves forward, though the facility remains in the “planning phase” for now.
The conditions for approval, which Hinkley called “very reasonable,” mostly focus on the hours of operation for the facility and disallowing outdoor activities on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays, as well as barring overnight parking.
The PZC also required Hinkley to submit state licensing documents through the town, and explicitly required “additional uses” of the facility to be preceded by “further approvals” from the PZC.
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