CLINIC STRIKES FEAR IN NEIGHBORHOOD

methadone-crowdA crowd packed Middletown’s meeting room Monday night rallying against a recently opened medical center that dispenses methadone. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

The tiny community near Apple Farm Road, off Route 35, was a place where kids could roam free, homeowners could decide not to lock their front doors without worry and every face you saw was somebody you knew.

That was until Middletown Medical opened up and changed everything, neighbors say.

Because at the only entrance and exit to that community sits the medical center, which is not the place to go for a check-up or to look into a nagging cough. Middletown Medical is a methadone clinic, dispensing the synthetic pill just a stone’s throw from a bundle of homes and school bus stops. Methadone, in addition to treating chronic pain, is a popular and controversial drug used to treat opiate addicts to help wean them off drugs like heroin and morphine.

And nobody’s happy about the new dispensary opening its doors — to the town’s surprise — so close to the residential neighborhood. Neighbors share fears that the business will open up the neighborhood to a seedy cohort prone to stealing, robbing or getting a fix or drug money by any means necessary. One woman who said she goes walking through the neighborhood each morning fears she could be mugged, thrown in a ditch and left unnoticed for hours.

Within the law, though, there nothing anybody can do about the clinic, town officials maintain.

“I don’t want this business in Middletown and I don’t think anyone else wants this business in Middletown,” said Mayor Tony Fiore, facing a crowd that spilled from the committee chambers to the hallway of town hall. “We don’t have very many legal options.”

But even though Middletown Medical is so close to the neighborhood, it sits on Route 35 in a designated business zone. Attorney Brian Nelson said the state municipal land use statute clearly states that a methadone clinic cannot be denied operating within a business zone, thereby handcuffing the township committee to do little else besides step-up police presence in the area to make sure it stays safe.

Anything outside of that would result in a sure loss in court and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and punitive damages, he said.

“What we can do is we can enforce. What we can do is make sure that nothing is going wrong,” Fiore said. “We will make sure we do everything we can to protect this neighborhood.”

That answer didn’t satisfy the cheek-by-jowl crowd, which pushed the committee to pull the clinic’s certificate of occupancy and, as one man suggested, increase the fire protection requirements in the building to essentially drain the clinic’s bank account and drive it out of town.

None of which are legal options, officials said.

Formerly a home to a real estate brokerage, the clinic filed a change of occupancy form with the town’s zoning office late last year, fulfilling all that’s required to open its doors, they said. Although the nature of the business is questionable, officials said, it met all the code and zoning requirements to earn a certificate of occupancy, and opened for business about two weeks ago.

Neighbors, distraught over the sudden switch, pointed the finger at the township committee, saying it was its members who “welcomed” the business into town and never notified neighbors that it was moving in.

But officials say they never knew about it.

Unlike many business changeovers, a variance from the local zoning laws was not needed, and therefore no public notice was required. And even if it was, no homes are within the required 250-foot notice area, Fiore said.

Still, Committeeman Steve Massel, who has three nieces who live in that neighborhood, said, “we should have known.”

“In a best-case scenario, it’s terrible,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where it is, it shouldn’t be here.”

Patricia Eschbach Corridon, who lives off Apple Farm Road, said even though there may be nothing the town can do about the clinic, it could have at least told residents when the information was made available to committee members.

“Since everything from a broken toe nail to a cell tower is aired in this town, to not know about this appears to be a very surreptitious move,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want the neighborhood turning into a “police state” with heightened patrols. “I don’t feel a great deal of trust in this group.”

Fiore said it’s not a matter of trust or keeping a secret from residents. He said he was just as shocked as everybody else was when he found out the clinic opened.

At the end of the day, it’s allowed to be there, like it or not.

“It’s not gray,” Administrator Anthony Mercantante said of the state statute. “It’s black and white.”