By Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
LUDLOW — Phish guitarist and lead singer Trey Anastasio and his Divided Sky Foundation have overcome neighbors’ opposition to win municipal approval to convert an Okemo Mountain property into a 40-bed treatment center for Vermonters facing alcoholism or addiction.
“I started Divided Sky Foundation to offer people the same help that I was fortunate enough to receive, which is an opportunity to get treatment for substance use, to be in recovery, and hopefully to do that while serving others,” the 14-years-sober frontman for the Burlington-born rock band told the Ludlow Development Review Board during one of two recent online hearings.
Anastasio’s foundation has bought the 18-acre Fox Run at Okemo property that includes a 20-room lodge with a commercial kitchen, meeting space and exercise facility to house a nonprofit residential program for people who can’t afford treatment for substance use disorders.
“What we’re dealing with here is an actual epidemic,” Anastasio said of an addiction surge he fought firsthand after his 2006 arrest for erratic driving in a vehicle with drugs. “I have, from the love of my heart, wanted to help Vermont with this problem.”
The plan for the Ludlow center is for it to be run by Ascension Recovery Services, which has similar programs in upwards of 30 states. Once complete, it will join Vermont’s four other certified residential facilities. For comparison, neighboring New Hampshire has 16 facilities and Maine has 17.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the incredible, progressive, forward-thinking Vermont recovery community and there’s one place that they all agree, and that’s that we don’t have enough beds,” Anastasio said. “I really think that every town in America should be clamoring to have a treatment center, considering what’s going on.”
But about two dozen Ludlow neighbors disagreed during the project’s online hearings, spending hours questioning everything from parking to what one said was their “negative” perception of the project.
“I think folks have a legitimate interest in how traffic and the presence of more people are going to impact the character of the area,” lawyer Antonietta (“Toni”) Girardi said for the neighbors. “We have no ill will toward people in recovery. I object to any suggestion that they are discriminating or stereotyping in any way. They are simply asking questions.”
But the lawyer went on to ask whether the foundation “can guarantee that violent individuals will be screened out and no violent patients or guests will be admitted,” leading the plan’s counsel to object.
“I don’t see the word ‘guarantee’ anywhere in the zoning bylaw,” attorney Christopher Roy said. “What we can do is talk about the processes we have in place to do the very best job we can and, most importantly, to abide by regulations promulgated by state and federal agencies with expertise over these matters.”
“This,” Roy said of opponents’ increasingly far-flung questions deep into a second hearing, “is getting pretty darn afield from the standard for approval.”
Phil Carter, the development review board’s chairman, agreed.
“We could have wrapped this up probably in an hour in the first hearing, but here we are,” Carter said. “We’re getting to the point now where if we approve a restaurant, we’re going to start talking about who the restaurant’s going to let in or not let in.”
“We certainly want to ensure the safety of the community no matter whether it’s a restaurant or this facility,” Carter concluded, “and I think we have enough evidence to move forward with this.”
The project isn’t yet a done deal, as opponents can appeal the ruling as it proceeds to the state Act 250 land use permit process. But with funding, a location and local approval secured, the foundation is hoping to open with a staff of 30 by the end of the year.
To raise money, Anastasio held an eight-week online residency at New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre last fall. “The Beacon Jams” drew both raves for the way Anastasio reimagined music from his three-decade career as well as more than $1.2 million in donations.
“This moment would not have been possible if it wasn’t for all the support we received,” Anastasio said in a resulting statement. “It means so much to me, and it’s going to mean so much to the families that will benefit.”