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Amherst may restrict where drug treatment clinics can open

Following Catholic Health System's controversial plan to build a drug-treatment clinic in Amherst, members of the Town Board want to impose limits on future clinics in the town.

A resolution that is backed by a majority of the Town Board directs the town attorney, building commissioner and planning director to review the town's zoning code and prepare changes that address concerns raised by neighbors who say the proposed site at 910 Millersport Highway, near Sheridan Drive, is too residential for a clinic that will distribute methadone to patients.

The resolution can't be used to retroactively block the Catholic Health clinic, where medical staff would distribute methadone, Suboxone and other medications used to treat narcotics dependency. But it is meant to give Amherst officials more of a say over future clinic proposals, said Councilwoman Ramona D. Popowich, who sponsored the legislation.

"My intention is so it doesn't happen again," Popowich said. The board is set to vote on the resolution at a special meeting at 4 p.m. Monday.

Catholic Health seeks to move its outpatient chemical-dependency treatment center from 3730 Sheridan Drive to 910 Millersport. System officials say the existing clinic, where it offers drug and alcohol counseling services, isn't large enough to accommodate the medication-assisted treatment it now plans to offer to patients in Amherst.

Neighbors upset over lack of info on proposed Amherst drug clinic

The new site is zoned appropriately, and the project was approved administratively by the town's planning director. To proceed, Catholic Health needs a certificate of need from the state Health Department and the owner of 910 Millersport needs a building permit from the town building commissioner.

The commissioner, Brian Andrzejewski, last week said he is just beginning to review the request from the building owner and the process can take six to 10 weeks. He said he has made it clear he believes there are better locations for the clinic in the town.

Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter, R-Amherst, also met with Catholic Health officials last week to press the neighbors' case and to encourage the system to find an alternative site.

Catholic Health, so far, hasn't changed its mind about 910 Millersport, instead stressing the need to provide treatment to patients in Amherst.

The system just mailed out letters to people who live in the nine homes on North Ivyhurst directly behind the Millersport site, inviting them to visit the Sheridan Drive clinic and to hear one-on-one from Catholic Health officials, said JoAnn Cavanaugh, a system spokeswoman.

There are two sessions planned for May 2, at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., that are closed to reporters, though officials will speak to the media afterward. Catholic Health hasn't scheduled a session open to any Amherst resident interested in attending.

The public can attend Monday's special Town Board meeting, where Popowich's resolution will be debated.

Popowich said she introduced the bill because she thought the town was caught off guard by Catholic Health's clinic proposal, and there weren't any protections in the town's zoning code. The code treats all medical clinics the same, no matter which medications they will dispense.

She said she understands the need for the clinics. But she said she would like to see limits on them in residential neighborhoods, or near parks, and she would leave it up to the experts to draw those restrictions.

"That resolution sounds like exactly what we're asking for, and I'm very happy about that," said Steve Matisz, president of the Eggertsville Community Organization, which hosted a meeting last week where residents aired their concerns on the clinic.

Popowich has Councilwoman Francina Spoth as a co-sponsor, and Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said he supports the measure as well, giving it at least three votes on the five-member board.

Any code changes would apply to future clinic proposals, not to 910 Millersport, said Town Attorney Stanley Sliwa.

But Weinstein said he thinks the resolution could serve as leverage with Catholic Health. And he said he'd like to see if the town could grandfather in the 910 Millersport clinic, but with a deadline of a certain number of years for Catholic Health to find a new site.

The proposed zoning change, Weinstein said, "helps protect us against the future, and it might have some posturing effect against the present."

Cavanaugh, the Catholic Health spokeswoman, declined comment on the resolution.

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