BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont's Environmental Court has sided with the Brattleboro Retreat on its plan to lease the Meadowlark Inn, an eight-room building at 13 Gibson Road, to house patients participating in the hospital's Uniformed Service Program.
The Retreat's popular Uniformed Service Program brings from around the country firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and members of the military suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the Retreat wants to house the participants while they are in Brattleboro seeking care.
The psychiatric hospital won approval from the Development Review Board in June 2012 to use the property as an inn but two neighbors, Ben Madow and Leah Nussbaum, argued to the court that the Retreat's use of the building would transform the property into a therapeutic community residence, and Madow and Nussbaum asked the environmental court to overturn the DRB's decision.
Environmental Judge Thomas Walsh concluded that the DRB did not err in issuing the Retreat its permit and said the hospital could rent the rooms to its patients, though the Retreat is not allowed to offer any psychiatric services or therapy within the building at 13 Gibson Road.
Madow refused to comment on the ruling when reached by telephone Friday.
Brattleboro Retreat CEO Rob Simpson said he did not want to comment on the court's decision until the appeal period is over.
The Retreat claims that it wants to change the Meadowlark Inn, which has a permit to operate as a bed and breakfast, into an inn, which would allow the hospital to put up its residents in the Uniformed Service Program for up to 10 days.
Staff at the inn would include, at all times, one person with mental health and assessment training, though participants in the program would not be required to stay at the inn and billing for the housing would not go through insurance programs and would be independent of program costs.
According to court records, Madow and Nussbaum wanted the DRB to investigate whether the Retreat's plan would transform the property into a therapeutic community residence, which would change its permitted use under the town's zoning regulations. A therapeutic community residence is not allowed in the rural residential district where the Meadowlark Inn is located.
In issuing his decision, Judge Walsh looked at how the town defines an inn in its zoning regulations, and even contemplated whether yoga or exercise classes that might be offered at the property would change the Retreat's zoning permit.
The court found that yoga and exercise classes could not be offered as part of any organized treatment plan by the Retreat.
Simpson told the Environmental Court that participants would typically stay at the inn from 10 to 14 days and he said "No psychiatric services or individualized psychiatric treatment will be offered on site," according to court records.
Madow and Nussbaum argued that having a trained Retreat staff person, and having rules prohibiting drugs, guns and alcohol, suggest that the inn will provide health assessment or supervision amounting to individualized treatment.
But Judge Walsh wrote that any inn can impose rules as long as they don't violate the Constitution, and he said the inn would be only one of many lodging choices the participants would be able to choose from while visiting Brattleboro.
"Even though the operation of the property may be somewhat nontraditional," Walsh wrote, "we see no error in the DRB's determination that, for zoning purposes, the property may be classified as an inn."