DEBATE INTENSIFIES IN SAUGUS OVER FUTURE OF SOBER HOUSE
   
  Author: By Kathy McCabe, Globe Correspondent
Date: 01/04/1998
Page: 8 Section: North Weekly
   
   SAUGUS -- Phil Malonson runs his sober houses with one basic rule: You drink, you drug, you're out. It is with that tough stand that Malonson, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, has helped more than 100 other addicts start new lives through his Twelve Step Education Program of New England, Inc., a nonprofit transitional housing program that operates 10 sober houses in Greater Boston.

The zero-tolerance policy is also what the 44-year-old Woburn substance abuse counselor hopes will persuade Saugus town officials and residents to support his newest sober house for men, located here at the former Abbey Hill Nursing Home on Hamilton Street. Twelve Step, established six years ago, also operates six sober houses in Woburn, one in Medford, one in Leominster, and one in Lowell. The organization is eyeing a location in Salem, and has also looked at real estate in Lynn, Somerville, and Billerica, he said. ``I am just one addict helping another to stay clean and sober,'' Malonson said last week, sitting in his basement office at the former nursing home.

Town officials ordered the sober house to close last month after a 10-day temporary occupancy permit expired. Officials relented, however, and did not evict 18 men who have been living there since the house opened on Nov. 1. The Board of Selectmen will conduct a public meeting on the facility tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall Annex on Main Street. A hearing before a clerk magistrate in Lynn District Court is scheduled for Tuesday to force the organization to apply for a permanent occupancy permit. But Samuel Vitali, a Lynn attorney representing Twelve Step, said his client applied for the permit on Dec. 23.

Since Twelve Step is a nonprofit educational organization, state law exempts it from local zoning bylaws. The town can, however, impose restrictions on parking and the number of residents, among other occupancy requirements. ``Under the statute, we can impose reasonable regulations,'' said town counsel John Vasapolli. ``This is not about who the people are that will use the facility. We do want to make sure it is, in fact, a nonprofit and is not subject to our zoning.''

Town officials say they need more information about Malonson and his program before signing off on a permanent occupancy permit. ``They are routine things we are asking for, things like parking, egress, access,'' Town Manager Richard Cardillo said. Cardillo acknowledged, however, that complaints from neighbors over the sober house is a major concern. The former nursing home sits high on a hill overlooking Hamilton Street. It has 12 bedrooms that can house a maximum of 48 people. ``The neighbors have a right to know what types of people will be living in a facility like this,'' he said.

Selectman Richard Barry, noting Saugus is already home to the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, questions whether the town needs a second sober house. ``The town doesn't want to do anything illegal, but we already have a big facility run by the Salvation Army. Now we are going to have another rehab facility in the middle of town?'' Several neighbors complained they did not know about Twelve Step moving into the home at a selectman's meeting last month. ``The welfare of a neighborhood is always a major concern to a board like ours. It would have been nice if the gentleman came before the town and made a presentation,'' Barry said.

But even residents who have questions about Twelve Step's mission say they found their answers at Town Hall, where plans were available from the building inspector for public review. ``I think the confusion about this got out of hand. I was able to see the plans at Town Hall,'' said Maureen Dever, a town meeting member from Precinct 3, where the house is located. ``I think people want to know who will be living here and establish a good neighbor policy.''

To allay neighbors' fears, Twelve Step held an open house at the facility last week. More than a dozen residents came to meet Malonson, who attended with his wife, Doreen, and 2-year-old daughter, Malana. ``We're not bad guys,'' Malonson told a gathering. ``I think fear of the unknown has people wondering what a sober house is.''

A sober house lets recovering addicts live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment. Residents of Twelve Step homes can stay up to two years and must attend weekly Alcoholic Anonymous meetings or other 12-step recovery programs. Residents pay $90 per week board and must perform house chores.

Malonson credits 12-step recovery programs with turning his life around. The Woburn native says he has been sober since Jan. 13, 1988, after having attempted detoxification at least 50 times, and bouncing around the country working odd jobs. He returned home to Woburn 11 years ago, earned a general educational development diploma, enrolled in Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, and became a substance abuse counselor at the former Choate Health Systems' Caulfield Center in Woburn. He says he received a bachelor's degree in social work last June from Salem State College and has been accepted into a master's degree program at Lesley College in Cambridge.

Malonson accepts some of the blame for confusion in Saugus. Since Twelve Step is a residential program that has leased a former nursing home, he thought the program qualified as an existing use, and did not require a special permit. ``I did not think it was a new use,'' he said. ``It was a misunderstanding. Now I am trying to appease people.''
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