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Amherst's fears over drug clinic sites aren't borne out by crime stats

The Town of Amherst is considering tough new restrictions on where drug treatment clinics can locate, but a review of police data shows there's been few crimes at existing treatment centers in the town and a methadone clinic in Buffalo over the past half-dozen years.

The four treatment centers in the town were the source of just six calls to Amherst police between 2010 and the first half of 2017, according to police records.

Just one of the four clinics provides medication-assisted treatment to its patients. And that clinic does not distribute methadone, the medication that has become a flashpoint in the controversy over Catholic Health System's plan to open a new clinic that would provide methadone, Suboxone and other medication to patients in the town.

But a clinic in Buffalo that does offer methadone, operated by Catholic Health, was the site of just five arrests or reported felony crimes since 2010, according to a Buffalo police database.

"We don't have a lot of calls at the clinics," Amherst Police Chief John Askey said in an interview.

Facing stiff opposition from neighbors and town officials, Catholic Health last week backed down from its plans to open a clinic at 910 Millersport Highway, and instead said it would open the clinic in an industrial park at 210 John Glenn Drive. Residents near the Millersport Highway site said they feared the clinic would bring crime, noise, traffic and declining property values.

Town officials responded to Catholic Health's initial proposal by introducing a local law that would restrict where new chemical dependency clinics could open in the town. Backers of the law say they don't want the clinics to open in residential neighborhoods. Critics of the law, including Erie County's health commissioner, say it creates barriers for drug addicts who are in desperate need of help.

"It's really demeaning," said Dr. Gale R. Burstein, the commissioner.

Catholic Health System now plans to open a drug treatment clinic in this building at 210 John Glenn Drive, in an industrial park in Amherst, N.Y. It originally planned to provide those services at 910 Millersport Highway, but neighbors and town officials were opposed. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Proposed Amherst law

The proposed Amherst local law wouldn't allow a drug treatment clinic to locate within 400 feet of a residence or within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or library.

The new code isn't meant to apply to the offices of doctors who dispense this medication as part of their practice, Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa said.

Town officials say the changes are needed because the Catholic Health clinic, under the existing zoning code, could have opened on the edge of a residential neighborhood.

"What I'm trying to do is balance the needs of both" residents and Catholic Health's patients, said Ramona Popowich, the Town Board member who introduced the local law.

The Planning Board tabled the proposal until its Sept. 14 meeting.

Burstein sent an Aug. 18 letter to Sliwa arguing against the local law. In response, Sliwa has amended the proposed local law to reflect some of the points made by the Planning Board and Burstein.

But Burstein remains opposed. The town should treat these clinics the same way they treat any other medical practice, she said, instead of introducing the kinds of restrictions some municipalities apply to liquor stores or adult bookstores.

"This may even make people who are struggling with addiction more hesitant to seek care," Burstein said.

The Town Board will have the final say over the proposed law.

Methadone clinic controversy

The clinic controversy in Amherst began when residents of North Ivyhurst Road showed up at the April 3 Town Board meeting to raise objections to Catholic Health's proposal to open a drug-treatment clinic across the street from them at 910 Millersport.

The residents had just learned about the system's plan to move its drug and alcohol counseling center from its current location, at 3730 Sheridan Drive, and to expand its services to provide medication-assisted treatment to opiate addicts.

Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein asked the police chief for his opinion.

"We've had another clinic in the Northtown Plaza area. And there were many times we'd have individuals trying to sell to these poor people that were trying to get better in the parking lot," Askey said at the time.

In an interview this week, Askey said he was referring to the Beacon Center, at 3354 Sheridan Drive. He said a confidential informant sometime in the past two years had told the department about someone dealing drugs outside the center.

The police chief said his officers weren't able to verify the informant's claims and no one was ever arrested.

But his comments at the April Town Board meeting helped galvanize opposition to Catholic Health's proposal until the hospital system ultimately decided to shift its proposed clinic to a new site in the Audubon Industrial Park.

Meanwhile, a Johns Hopkins University study compared violent crime in the neighborhoods surrounding drug treatment centers, liquor stores, corner stores and convenience stores. The study found such crime was significantly higher near liquor and corner stores than near drug treatment centers, which had roughly the same rate of violent crimes as convenience stores.

What Amherst police stats show 

In interviews, at Town Board meetings and at community forums, neighbors of the Millersport site predicted a methadone clinic would serve as a magnet for crime.

But is that true?

Amherst has four treatment centers licensed by the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

Just one, the Beacon Center, provides Suboxone and vivitrol to clients. The other three, including Catholic Health's Sisters of Charity Hospital clinic at 3730 Sheridan; Bry-Lin Hospitals at 531 Farber Lakes Drive; and Mid-Erie Counseling and Treatment Services, 6350 Main St., do not provide medication.

Amherst police were dispatched six times to those sites since 2010, all between 2013 and June of this year, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. Three took place at Bry-Lin, two at Beacon Center and one at Sisters Hospital clinic.

The six calls range from welfare checks to a man who locked himself in the bathroom of the Beacon Center after taking 12 ecstasy pills while trying to kill himself.

The police records would not include any cases where someone left the clinic and commits a crime nearby.

Lynda Hitchcock, a North Ivyhurst resident who was opposed to Catholic Health's plans to locate a methadone clinic on Millersport, expressed surprise at the low number of calls for police at the Amherst drug clinics. Hitchcock said residents' concerns were based in part on what they heard from employees of clinics.

"It's a negligible amount," Hitchcock said of the calls, but she nonetheless stands by her position that Catholic Health's clinic is better suited for the industrial park.

And she noted that residents remain worried that clinic clients might commit crimes in neighborhoods near the clinics.

Few arrests at Buffalo clinic 

The level of crime is only slightly higher at a clinic in Buffalo that distributes methadone and other medication.

Sisters Hospital operates a chemical dependency clinic in Buffalo at 158 Holden St., off East Amherst Street. The News reviewed Buffalo police databases of felony crimes and arrests, going back to 2010. There were three reported crimes and two arrests at or outside the clinic during that span. They included an arrest for disorderly conduct, tires stolen off a car parked out front of the clinic and a patient who blew a 0.04 on a required Breathalyzer test and drove off over the objections of a clinic staffer.

The data reviewed did not include all police calls at the site.

Marty Boryszak, president and CEO of Sisters Hospital, said in a statement that the clinic crime statistics are not surprising to his team.

"People are more likely to encounter crime at their nearest shopping center than at any of these facilities," Boryszak said.

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