Residential drug & alcohol rehab company looking to establish facility in the now bank-owned Gunstock Inn
Published Date Written by Gail OberGILFORD — The Phoenix House of New England is looking to relocate into the Gunstock Inn on Cherry Valley Road, which, as of yesterday, became the property of Northway Bank.
Representatives from the residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation company met with the Gilford Planning Board in a workshop meeting last night to see if the relocation was possible under existing zoning ordinances.
Former owner Richard Bastille recently shuttered the inn and fitness center he and his partners operated on the property, indicating the poor economy of recent years had taken a toll.
During last night's presentation at Town Hall, Paul Lavallee said he was looking to buy the Gunstock Inn from the bank and lease the the top floor to the Phoenix House. He said the plan is to create separate entrances and utilize the first floor for a recreation and fitness center that would be open to the public. The building houses a heated indoor pool.
The Phoenix House is the nation's largest not-for-profit drug treatment and prevention organization according to the information provided at last night's information session.
Neil Gaer, senior program director of Phoenix House, said the proposal for Gilford would be residential treatment for people who want to be there. He said the clients would be a combination of private pay, insurance pay, and state subsidized.
He said there would be no drugs dispensed on site and counselors would be there around the clock. He said the building would house between 32 and 34 people — all adults. The average stay is 22 days and when asked, he said there is no opportunity for the clients to become Gilford residents. He also said it would employ between 20 and 25 people.
"It is living, eating, recreating and education," said Gaer, who added the education part is more teaching recovering addicts to live drug- and alcohol-free, healthy lives.
The Phoenix House in Franklin is forced to relocate, said Gaer, who explained that the five-year lease is expiring on April 1 and the Easter Seals is taking over the entire Webster Farm complex. Ideally, Gaer said he would like to relocate at the former Gunstock Inn but said the agency is looking at other properties.
There are two other Phoenix Houses in New Hampshire — one in Dublin that has been operating since 1971 and one in Keene operating since 1977.
Police Chief Kevin Keenan said earlier in the day that he has spoken with Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein, who sits on the Phoenix House community board, and said Goldstein told him the Phoenix House was a excellent neighbor.
For the Planning Board, the decision seems to be one of whether or not the proposed use requires a special exception — which is a use not permitted outright but can be accepted under certain conditions — or a variance, which is a deviation from a specific requirement that typically involves a hardship that cannot be self-created.
Planning Board Chair John Morgenstern said that getting a special exception shouldn't be "too onerous" but he was unsure what special exception the project should request. He added that the hardship requirements involved in a variance can be difficult to meet.
"It's only onerous if the ZBA — the Zoning Board of Adjustments — denies this," he said.
Planning Director John Ayre said there are a number of special exceptions listed in the ordinance and he is looking at to find one that would accommodate a mixed-use rehabilitation-fitness center. One possibility, he said, would be cottage colonies or temporary season lodging.
All of the members of the board seemed to welcome to the idea of the Phoenix House but agreed the project should officially start with the ZBA. Both Selectboard representative Kevin Hayes and member Chan Eddy said they favored the project but want to make sure it is done properly and by the rules.
When LaVallee suggested a continuation of use might be in order — meaning no special exception or variance would be needed, Hayes balked. "I struggle with a continuance of use," he said. "The public perception is short-term rental."
Morgenstern said he didn't see any reason why the Phoenix House and the property's potential owner couldn't put together a few special exceptions, treat it as a package, and present it to the ZBA. He also suggested, in the interests of time, that the LaValley and Gaer also request a variance for the same meeting and let the ZBA determine which is appropriate.
LaVallee and Gaer have one week from today to request either a special exception a variance or both from the ZBA, which is scheduled to meet February 28 and must have applications in time for posting and getting on the agenda.
If the ZBA grants either or both, Ayre said the project would have to come back before the Planning Board at a minimum for site inspection and reconfigured parking. He also said the Planning Board would have to decide on the mixed-uses of rehabilitation and fitness.
Less Schuster, owner of the Lazy E Inn and Lakes Side Getaway in Laconia and the Bear Tree Lodge in Meredith has also publicly expressed interest in buying the Gilford inn. He was continue to operate it as a lodging facility.