WARREN, Maine — After spending more than an hour Tuesday night behind closed doors in executive session, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to let the town’s residents decide if they prefer to settle a federal lawsuit related to a proposed methadone clinic.
But even officials who feel that it is in the best interest of the town to spend a total of $320,000 to settle the suit acknowledged that the move wouldn’t sit well with many in Warren.
“There’s a lot of people in this town who believe in standing for principle,” Selectman Doug Pope said after the meeting. “It’s pretty hard to say that’s a bad thing.”
The lawsuit was filed this spring against the town by California-based drug rehabilitation company CRC Health Group, which argued that Warren violated the Americans With Disabilities Act when it temporarily banned methadone clinics from opening their doors in the community.
A year ago, Bob Emery of Vixen Land Holdings Inc., a Rockland developer, attempted to purchase the unused Brick School from the town, telling municipal officials it would be rented to a business as office space. But when it became clear that CRC Health Group planned to rent the school for a methadone clinic, the town broke off the agreement with Emery.
Residents overwhelmingly voted in December for a temporary moratorium against methadone clinics. They voted in July to adopt land use ordinances which would restrict the development of large business, professional and medical offices or clinics in the community, limiting construction of these to sites on U.S. Route 1 or State Route 90. The ordinances also detail 500-foot setbacks from churches, schools, day care facilities, playgrounds and public parks.
The words “methadone clinic” are not in the final ordinances passed by the towns.
However, in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, CRC Health Group asked the court to find that Warren’s actions are discriminatory because drug addicts are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the municipality won’t allow them to receive treatment within the town’s limits. It also asks the court to order the town to let the company move in and for the town to pay the company’s legal fees.
An opinionated crowd of about 15 waited Tuesday night for the town’s elected officials to open the doors after the executive session.
“People have a lot of questions, but no answers,” one man who declined to give his name said.
“This whole mess is a question,” added a woman he was talking to, who likewise didn’t identify herself.
Selectmen said they hoped residents would find some answers in two documents that they passed around after the brief public portion of the meeting: a copy of an informational letter to Warren residents and the memorandum of understanding that details the proposed settlement between the town, CRC Health Group Inc. and Vixen Land Holdings LLC.
Among other points, the informational letter states that the town’s insurance company has taken the position that it has “very limited obligations” under Warren’s insurance policy.
“The Plaintiffs assert that as a result of their inability to operate the clinic at the Brick School, they have lost close to $900,000,” the letter stated. “The Town denies any wrongdoing. However, any lawsuit brings with it uncertainty …. the Select Board believes that the people of Warren should be entitled to decide whether this settlement is in their collective best interest.”
A settlement would mean that the plaintiffs would agree to drop all claims they could have brought against the town.
No representatives from CRC Health Group or Vixen Land Holdings appeared to be present Tuesday night and efforts to reach them for comment were not successful.
Voters will be asked next week if they will authorize the spending of $180,000 from the town’s fund balance to go to the “full and final settlement.” The remaining $140,000 would be paid by Warren’s insurance company.
According to Pope, when mediation for the settlement was conducted on Aug. 31, he learned that if the lawsuit progresses, the town faces the possibility of years of litigation, expensive attorney fees and the chance that ultimately it would lose the case.
“The question is, do you want to take the chance?” he asked.
He said that he expects there to be a good turnout at the special town meeting held to decide the matter. He encouraged residents to read the informational letter and the memorandum of understanding and to speak with selectmen before making their final decision.
“This issue has energized the townspeople from the very beginning,” he said. “I hope that after serious consideration, they will vote what’s best for the town.”
Selectman Wayne Luce said after the meeting that he believes the plaintiffs’ argument is wrong.
“They’ve taken the Americans With Disabilities Act and broadened it way more than it was ever intended,” he said. “I think a lot of people’s first reaction will be, don’t settle with them. I want to do what’s in the best interest for the town — and that’s a settlement.”
The Warren special town meeting to determine whether to settle the federal lawsuit will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Warren Community School.
For information, call the town office at 273-2421.