Blueprint Recovery Center on Russell Street

Jonathan Gerson is executive director of Blueprint Recovery Center, the Concord recovery treatment center associated with a sober living home on Russell Street in Manchester.

MANCHESTER — The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment has voted unanimously to deny a variance request from a company operating a sober house in a Manchester residential neighborhood.

There are up to 60 sober living houses in Manchester, fire chief says

Attorney Andrew A. Prolman represents Jonathan Gerson, executive director of Blueprint Recovery Center of Concord, the program associated with the sober living home. Prolman went before the zoning board last Thursday seeking forgiveness for not seeking a variance earlier, saying his client believed one wasn’t needed because 70 Russell St. is in a residential area.

Amatus Health Systems, the Maryland-based company that opened the Keep it Simple NH House in October 2018, said in its application that the sober living home operates the “missing link” for successful treatment of up to 16 addicts and alcoholics in the early recovery stage.

During a public hearing before the vote, more than a dozen neighbors of the Russell Street sober house and similar homes on Orange and Chestnut streets, also run by Blueprint Recovery, spoke against granting the variance.

One of those neighbors, former school board member Rich Girard, said granting the variance would “set an irrefutable precedent for a business model that seeks forgiveness rather than permission.”

“The business model is clear,” Girard said. “Buy improperly zoned facilities in unsuspecting residential neighborhoods with out-of-state cash, do unpermitted work that enables a greater number of unrelated individuals to live in the dwelling, operate hoping not to get caught and, if caught, feign ignorance of the codes, then come to this body seeking forgiveness and permission to operate because of the opioid crisis.”

Last month, Fire Chief Dan Goonan said the city hosts 50 to 60 loosely regulated sober living houses.

At last week’s hearing, neighbors said Gerson knew a variance was needed when he opened a second sober house on Orange Street, but didn’t seek one then either.

“Mr. Gerson and company opened 70 Russell Street surreptitiously and only came forward to request a variance because they were caught during a routine inspection of the property,” said Ward 8 Alderman Mike Porter.

Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart, who represents the Russell Street neighborhood, said he is happy with last week’s vote, but realizes the fight isn’t over. The applicant has 30 days to appeal, and is allowed to operate during that 30 days. If they appeal, they will likely operate until the appeal is heard. If the ZBA denies their request or grants it and rejects their application again, they can then appeal to superior court.

“While it’s still unclear what will happen next, or when, the neighbors and I will continue to keep a very close eye on this and another nearby illegal congregate living facility owned by the same out-of-state company,” Stewart said in a statement.

Porter argued Thursday that the operators of the Russell Street sober house and others like it are “businesses profiting off addiction.”

“They can make the claim they are here to help but if that was in fact true, why not be forthcoming and go before the ZBA before opening the business?” asked Porter. “Why not be up front and make the true intentions known? Instead they purchase these homes, make interior alterations without permits, and begin running a congregate living home without proper variances hoping the city won’t catch them. Their intentions are disingenuous to say the least.”

One man at the hearing spoke in favor of the Russell Street sober house, saying he works there and is and has been in recovery himself.

“His story was very compelling and encouraging,” said Porter. “However, the issue is not sober homes in Manchester but the use of a residential home as congregate living in an area where zoning does not allow the use. Manchester has zoning that allows for congregate living. The message is simple. Operate the business in zones that allow for it.

The Russell Street neighborhood is zoned residential two-family, or R-2. As defined in the zoning ordinance, this residential district “forms a loose band around the densely developed inner city area, representing a transitional district between the lower development densities of the single family districts and the maximum densities of the inner city.”

According to its property tax card, the structure at 70 Russell St. is a two-family with five bedrooms, with the applicant looking to place up to 16 clients, not counting on-site staff.

“Blueprint Recovery Center, LLC provides the much needed treatment services offsite, and uses 70 Russell Street as a sober house to keep recovering patients away from past triggers and negative influences,” the company wrote in a variance application.

The company describes itself as a national behavioral health provider with 11 locations in four states.

Congregate housing is defined in the zoning ordinance as: “Multifamily housing or other dwelling units serving individuals who require on-site services that support independent living, including, at a minimum, communal dining facilities.”

“This is a well-established neighborhood known for its Victorian character and mix of single-family and two-family residential dwelling units,” said Girard. “The proposed use is not a reasonable one given its inconsistency with the residential nature of the neighborhood.”

On Tuesday, the Aldermanic Committee on Administration is expected to begin a conversation with city public safety officials on the issue of illegal congregate housing across Manchester.

“High level city staff, including the city solicitor, the director of the Planning & Community Development Department, and the fire chief have been working in recent weeks to craft a strategy to address the issue of illegal congregate living businesses popping up across the city,” said Stewart.

“While this is a complex and multi-faceted challenge that will not be solved overnight, it is my hope that the plan that is presented will protect both those living in these facilities and the neighborhoods in which these businesses have illegally established themselves.”