Sunday, July 30, 2000


By Aglaia Pikounis Eagle-Tribune Writer

HAVERHILL -- Like several of her Saugus neighbors, Gertrude L. Parker started to worry when she heard a home for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics was moving into a closed nursing home across the street.

Mrs. Parker and her neighbors talked about ways to block the home. They were worried about the safety of neighborhood children and had little information about the people who would be moving into the old Abbey Hill Nursing Home on Hamilton Street.

They even asked police to patrol a school bus stop in front of the home to make sure children were safe.

But Mrs. Parker said neighbors' fears have slowly disappeared now that the home has moved in.

"We haven't had any problems with them at all," said Mrs. Parker, who has lived in the peaceful Saugus neighborhood for 49 years. "It's been quiet. I don't think anyone in the neighborhood is worried about it anymore."

Neighbors and town officials from Saugus, Woburn, Billerica and Quincy -- where Twelve Step Educational Program of New England runs so called "sober houses" for people who want to live in drug- and alcohol-free environments -- echoed Mrs. Parker's remarks. They say the homes have not caused any major problems, despite their fears.

Those same fears were echoed by Bradford neighbors when hearing that Twelve Step wants to open a home at the old Lennox Nursing Home, 378 South Main St.

Several neighbors spoke out against the home at a Haverhill Appeals Board meeting more than a week ago, saying they were concerned about children's safety, security, parking and declining property values.

The Appeals Board denied Twelve Step's request to open the home, citing the city's zoning laws. But based on cases in other Massachusetts communities, if Twelve Step Director Philip A. Malonson appeals the decision, Haverhill is likely to lose its fight.

In Saugus and Billerica, town officials tried to use zoning laws and health regulations to keep Mr. Malonson from bringing homes to their communities.

But Mr. Malonson never had to take the towns to court. Unlike what happened in Haverhill, other community leaders asked for legal opinions from city solicitors before making decisions about the Twelve Step homes, said Mr. Malonson.

Each time, Mr. Malonson was allowed to open the homes. "I don't believe any of them (Haverhill Appeals Board members) looked at the decisions of the other communities," he said.

Part of the reason Twelve Step has been successful in moving into communities is because Mr. Malonson bills it as a nonprofit educational facility which teaches former addicts independent living skills. Under state law, educational programs are exempt from local rules, argue Mr. Malonson's lawyers.

Fred Moore, a Saugus Town Meeting member who said he can see the "sober home'' from his kitchen window, said neighbors were in an uproar over the operation because many rumors were circulating. After touring the home and talking to Mr. Malonson, Mr. Moore said he thought the facility was a lot more attractive than an abandoned nursing home sitting in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

"I consider a use in a building better than no use because it's a vandal magnet," he said. "These aren't pedophiles who are living in the home. This is a group residence and all they do is live there. They're not in detox. They work and come home."

Saugus police Detective Frank E. Gill said police receive updated lists of the residents living in the home. Police check to make sure there are no outstanding warrants for the people listed or that their names are not on registered sex offender lists. At least two residents have been arrested on outstanding warrants for "minor" offenses, like not paying a motor vehicle fine, said Detective Gill.

"There have been no major problems," he said. "They have cooperated with us. If neighbors call, we check it out. But we really haven't had anything negative that's caused a stir."

When neighbors complain about a resident or problem, Mr. Malonson is quick to respond, they say.

Once when a Saugus neighbor saw a Twelve Step resident in a Lynn bar, she notified Mr. Malonson, said Mr. Moore.

Mr. Malonson quickly threw the resident out of the home, he said. "He's very strict," said Mr. Moore.

Before the town and Mr. Malonson could work together, however, relations were strained.

Because of the neighborhood opposition, Saugus health and inspection officials and selectmen tried to make it difficult for Mr. Malonson to stay there, Mr. Moore said. They "harassed" Mr. Malonson about everything from parking to security at his building, he said. At one point police even camped out in front of the building, he said.

"They tried every legal technique they could to harass these people," said Mr. Moore.

The strategies, however, failed. Since the home opened, there has been no increase in house breaks or other crime in the neighborhood, he said.

Mr. Moore, whose job involves studying land use and transportation issues, also said communities cannot use zoning laws to keep one of the homes from opening. "If Haverhill is going to try to fight this, he (Mr. Malonson) really does have the law on his side,'' Mr. Moore said. "He could sue them and win."

In Billerica, neighbors were also wary of the home moving into their area, and asked plenty of questions. "We had questions about it when we heard about them moving in," said Helen L. Powers, whose home is located across the street from a Twelve Step building. "But as far as noise or anything like that, you would never know that they were there," said Mrs. Powers, who has lived on Boston Road for 39 years. "You don't hear anything. Every once in a while you'll see one of them (residents) walking to the store on the corner, but other than that, it's been quiet."

Twelve Step runs five homes in Woburn including a home for women. Woburn town leaders praise Mr. Malonson for his cooperation. Woburn Building Commissioner Steven M. Paris said when Mr. Malonson proposed opening a home at 171 Cambridge Road, site of a closed retirement home, he contacted the city solicitor to make sure the home was exempt from local zoning laws. "Of course there was some discussion," said Mr. Paris, who was told the Twelve Step home was protected under state law.

Since the home opened up, Mr. Paris said, he has had no complaints from neighbors or residents living in the home. "He must keep a pretty clean operation," Mr. Paris said.

Woburn Police Capt. William H. Magee said the homes have been a "benefit to the community." "He runs a pretty strict house," said Capt. Magee. "When he's gotten calls of people not conforming to the house rules, he's kicked them out."

Despite the opposition he faces in Haverhill, Mr. Malonson said he is still interested in bringing a drug- and alcohol-free living environment here. "Statistics in Haverhill are sky-high for drug abuse," said Mr. Malonson. "If I don't get in, I'm going to get into one of the houses around Bradford College ... I'm not going away."

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