LYNDON — Northeast Kingdom Human Services plans to open a three-building, eight-bed residential treatment facility on Cornerstone Lane.

Now, those living nearby want it stopped.

Neighborhood group the Vail Action Alliance called on the Development Review Board to halt the project on Thursday.

They asked DRB to deny a conditional use permit for 133 Cornerstone and to reverse zoning approvals for 142 and 188 Cornerstone.

VAA members worry that the facility would bring potentially dangerous people (including sex offenders and convicted felons) into close proximity with their homes.

Northeast Kingdom Human Services countered that Cornerstone Lane would be a safe, adequately staffed facility that would serve its Intellectual and Development Disability Services clients.

The DRB heard from members of the public and NKHS officials for two hours before entering into non-public deliberations. They have 45 days to issue their rulings.

APPLICATION SCRUTINIZED

First, the Development Review Board heard NKHS’ application for a change-of-use permit at 133 Cornerstone.

The non-profit intends to use the building as a two-bed, short-term crisis unit for IDDS clients experiencing acute episodes.

DRB members questioned how the crisis center was allowable in a rural residential zone.

Lyndon zoning by-laws list eight permitted uses and 20 conditional uses allowed in a rural residential district. They do not include mental health facilities.

After reading the list, DRB member Curtis Carpenter asked NKHS officials, “What do you consider your services [at 133 Cornerstone] to be similar to, of the list of conditional uses that we are allowed to approve?”

Peter Kostruba, director of IDDS licensed residential services, suggested a guest home. Carpenter was skeptical.

“A guest home has the same meaning as a bed and breakfast, except a guest home does not serve meals. So I don’t know if that’s going to work for you,” Carpenter said.

Kostruba admitted the crisis unit “doesn’t fall neatly” into any one category, but said it was similar to other allowed uses “where you have multiple, unrelated people occupying the same building, either short-term or long-term.”

Carpenter wasn’t sure.

“That’s the thing I’m struggling with here, trying to fit this into one of the conditional uses for this particular zone,” he said.

Once the board was done, the floor was opened to the public. They were more interested in public safety than zoning.

Last month an NKHS client — the first on Cornerstone Lane — wandered off-site, threw rocks at passing cars, and injured a human services employee. NKHS officials confirmed it happened.

Kelly Coons, who witnessed the incident, asked how the non-profit could prevent future problems when more clients are housed on-site.

“I have significant concerns of you adding more people there when you’re not doing already what you said you were going to do,” she said.

VAA co-founder Travis Glodgett, who lives across the street from Cornerstone Lane, said he won’t let his 10-year-old daughter play in the street after the incident.

“That’s mostly the reason why we’re all here,” he said. “We’re concerned for our safety around these people.”

In response, NKHS offered assurances that the Cornerstone Lane facility would be adequately staffed with trained personnel; the buildings would be equipped with security cameras, door and window alarms; and clients would be restrained when needed.

They said the most dangerous clients would not be admitted, due to the site’s rural residential setting.

“We hear all of the neighbors loud and clear,” said Kostruba. “I’m a dad first. I get it. I understand everyone’s fears. I don’t want to see anyone hurt.”

APPEALS HEARD

Next, The Development Review Board heard VAA appeals of zoning decisions for 142 and 188 Cornerstone.

Last month Zoning Administrator Nicole Gratton ruled that 142 Cornerstone (an office/single-family apartment) did not require a permit because it was a pre-existing use, and she granted a change-of-use permit for 188 Cornerstone (a five-bed, long-term residential facility) because it was an accepted use in a rural residential zone. Neither required DRB approval.

In the appeals, Glodgett, the VAA co-founder, argued that Cornerstone Lane should be considered a Planned Unit Development, and should be subject to DRB oversight.

That claim was challenged by Carpenter, the DRB member.

Carpenter said the Vermont Supreme Court defined a Planned Unit Development as “a large tract of land, frequently large enough to constitute a new community,” and he cited large-scale developments in Killington and Quechee as examples.

“I’ve been on this board for three years and we have never treated any development as a Planned Unit Development, and I think that’s generally because you usually consider them as really substantial projects,” he said.

In addition, Carpenter said, group homes (up to 8 people) are defined as a single-family residential use under state law, and must be treated as such.

“My concern is, if we try to put this project under a Planned Unit Development matrix, you’re subjecting it to a level of regulation that we typically do not put on residential development in this community,” he said. “I’ve [reviewed] plenty of subdivisions where people have carved up lots that are significantly bigger than the 14 acres that we’re talking about here, and we have not put them through [Planned Unit Development review]. I’m concerned if we did that with this project, I don’t know how we would defend that in the lawsuit. I just don’t.”

However, VAA members pressed their case.

Glodgett said the planned use development definition was open to interpretation, and resident Todd Wellington (a Caledonian-Record employee) said past DRB practices should not dictate future actions.

“It may not be a big development in terms of statewide. But for us in that neighborhood it is a big development,” he said, adding that the DRB should not feel obligated to blindly follow precedent. “Maybe it’s your opportunity to change the way the town does things, because the world has changed.”

Wellington also took issue with NKHS for not seeking town permits until months after work began.

“These folks seem to have all the answers tonight. But I would like you to remember that they were completely silent early on. They’re only here with all these answers because this whole neighborhood made them come here,” he said.

Paul Bengtson, the interim Executive Director for NKHS, noted that NKHS had contacted the town about zoning permits early in the process. Emails show that the non-profit failed to follow up.

“Somebody dropped the ball,” he said.

When a member of the public asked if that ‘somebody’ was NKHS, Bengtson said ‘Yes.’

He added, “I was informed that a permit was not needed. I was foolish enough not to check that out.”

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