Neighbors of a proposed Amherst drug treatment clinic that will dispense methadone are criticizing how little information they've received about the project and are pressuring town officials to do whatever they can to keep it from opening.
Catholic Health System is moving the clinic from its current site on Sheridan Drive around the corner to 910 Millersport Highway and expanding its services from just drug and alcohol counseling to providing methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol to patients who are battling a drug addiction.
Many of the residents say Catholic Health has not provided enough public notice about its plans for the relocated clinic, perhaps to avoid public scrutiny of the project. The clinic would take over a former Carquest Auto Parts store that borders North Ivyhurst Road, and neighbors said they fear a rise in crime and a decline in their property values.
"I don't hear good things about the happenings or goings-on around these types of clinics," said Mark Halla, a 23-year North Ivyhurst resident.
Since word of the project's true nature came out at the April 3 Town Board meeting, town leaders have insisted they weren't informed about or they didn't fully understand Catholic Health's plans. Amherst officials have asked the system to consider moving the clinic to a less residential location, and a community group is holding a meeting Tuesday night to organize resistance to Catholic Health's plan.
Publicly available documents filed with the town and the state Health Department don't indicate the clinic's full purpose. Catholic Health officials began meeting with town officials last spring and summer to brief them on the project, but system officials said they didn't plan to talk to residents about their plans until much later in the process.
Catholic Health and Erie County officials say they still hope they can convince Amherst residents of the need for the expanded clinic and of the suitability of the site.
"It's unfortunate that they don't have all the information they need to really understand what this project is all about," said JoAnn Cavanaugh, a Catholic Health spokeswoman. "I think once we meet with them and they have all the information and we can answer all their questions, I think they will see things differently."
Catholic Health's Sisters of Charity Hospital is seeking to move its outpatient chemical dependency treatment center from 3730 Sheridan Drive. The existing clinic does not dispense methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol, and the hospital said it doesn't have room to expand to provide that medication at the clinic's current location.
The relocated clinic would be able to serve Amherst residents who now have to travel to Buffalo to receive medication-assisted treatment for their addictions, Catholic Health officials said previously.
Amherst Town Board Member Deborah Bruch Bucki met with system administrators about the project in April 2016 and again last summer. She said the system initially planned to expand the clinic at its current site, but in July revealed the new clinic would open at 910 Millersport. She said she told the officials she was concerned the site was too residential. About 10 homes on North Ivyhurst face the back of the former auto parts shop.
Bucki said in an email that she told Catholic Health she would not support the project unless system officials informed residents of their plans and allayed any of the neighbors' concerns. That, she said, did not happen.
"I would say that there is a serious need for treatment options, but that the neighbors were not consulted before the Millersport location was pursued," Bucki said Monday.
Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein, a physician, said last week he came out of his February meeting with Catholic Health not understanding the system planned to open a clinic that would provide methadone and other medications to patients. Council Member Francina J. Spoth said in an email to residents that she never met with Catholic Health.
The site plan application filed in November with the town Planning Department identifies the project as a medical clinic, without further explanation.
The developer, John Cozzarelli of 910 Millersport LLC, filed the application, which was approved administratively by the Planning Department in January because the site was zoned appropriately and because the plans called for minor changes to the site. One of the most significant changes was a fence the developer built along the North Ivyhurst side of the property, to add privacy for the neighbors.
Catholic Health was required to file a certificate of need for the clinic relocation with the state Health Department. The publicly available summary on the department's website doesn't reveal what the clinic is for, and a press officer directed a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the full application.
Halla, the North Ivyhurst resident, said he doesn't like the fact that town and Catholic Health officials all knew about this project months ago, and the only ones who didn't know about it were the residents who would live near it. He said he doesn't know if the residents have the power to block it. "It's like David and Goliath," he said.
Adam Hahn; his wife, Ashlee; his mother, Laurel Bianco; and the Hahns' three young children were spending the late morning Monday at Dellwood Park, which is across Millersport from the former auto parts store.
The Hahns and Bianco, who all live within half a mile of the playground and the clinic site, said they have a lot of questions about who the proposed clinic would serve and how it would function.
"We want to see more information," Ashlee Hahn said.
"They kind of snuck it in," added her mother-in-law.
Cavanaugh said Catholic Health officials thought it was appropriate to first review the proposal with Erie County and Amherst officials before filing the site plan and certificate of need applications. Catholic Health's meetings with regulators and elected officials were wrapping up in February and March, she said.
"I think it's more just a matter of timing. We had every intention of meeting with the neighbors. It wasn't something that we were trying to hide the fact of, that we were trying to open this clinic," Cavanaugh said.
What's next for the proposed clinic? The Town Board and Planning Board have no say over the project. The developer does need to obtain a building permit.
Residents are writing to town officials and state representatives to object to the project, and the Eggertsville Community Organization is hosting a meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 11 in the St. Paul's Lutheran Church parish hall, 4007 Main St., Eggertsville, to discuss the proposed methadone clinic.
The town has asked Catholic Health to reconsider the site, but the system so far is moving ahead with its preferred location.
Cavanaugh said the system is preparing to host a forum with residents sometime before the next regular Town Board meeting in May.
"This is a positive solution to a crisis that has been well-documented in the community," she said.