City sends letter with suggestions for proposed sober housing in Lower Mills

The head of the city’s legal department this week sent a letter to the operators of a proposed sober housing business in Lower Mills, warning them that documents they provided to city officials cites one law that does not exist and another that does not apply in Boston.

William Sinnott, corporation counsel for the city, also noted in the letter that one of the buildings the operators are leasing is a former funeral home and may require a zoning change.

The Molloy family owns the property and is leasing it to John Ingram and James Lamarr, who have spoken of plans to convert four buildings on Washington Street into “sober” housing for veterans.

The city’s letter, dated May 30, was sent in the wake of a meeting at the Washington St. properties held several weeks ago. In attendance at the meeting were three city attorneys, city and state health officials and several local elected officials.

The letter from Sinnott is addressed to Ingram and Lamarr. “In reviewing the materials you sent to the City of Boston, I noticed a form entitled ‘Program Contract and House Rules,’ which appears to contain incorrect legal information,” Sinnott wrote. “This is concerning because it appears that you intend to have potential residents read and sign this form.”

"The documents cite a section of the state’s general laws on zoning, but those do not apply to Boston because the city has its own zoning code enforced by the Inspectional Services Department.

“As a result, your ‘Program Contract and House Rules’ could be misleading to residents,” Sinnott wrote.

Sinnott wrote that they also provided city officials with a copy of a statute that has been proposed but has yet to make it into law.

Lamarr, who said he could not comment on a letter he hasn’t seen yet, told the Reporter that the proposed statute was included in documents they provided to city officials because it highlighted several aspects of sober housing they would like to incorporate into their potential project. They were also included it as a way to lessen concerns about the project, he said.

But he added that the references to the proposed statute and the state code have been removed after discussions with City Hall officials.

Lamarr said he and his colleagues have been forthright with city officials and any plans they have would adhere to city laws.

Lamarr indicated that the sober housing proposal is not set in concrete, noting they are conducting a feasibility study on developing the property into affordable housing or commercial space.

“We have a lot of options on the table,” he said.

The sober housing business may fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Public Health if it is deemed a “treatment facility,” since at a March community meeting, Ingram said they may provide psychological and treatment services to residents.

“In fact, on May 2, 2012, the DPH issued a report which signaled a renewed effort to investigate complaints related to facilities that conduct unlicensed treatment,” Sinnott wrote. “The unlicensed operation of a treatment facility can result in severe penalties...As a result, I strongly encourage you to contact DPH prior to the opening of your business to be sure you are in compliance with the law.”

Lamarr said he has been in contact with officials from the city and DPH, and conversations are ongoing. He acknowledged a “misstep in March” with a merchants’ association meeting. He said his group was not aware merchants expected them to come with a solid proposal and was taken aback at the skeptical reception to their vague plans.

The city’s letter came up in a Wednesday night meeting of Lower Mills merchants, who have raised questions about the size and scope of the project. Lamarr said his group was not invited to the meeting.

At City Hall, councillors have said they’re concerned with the largely unregulated operation of sober homes. Councillors Frank Baker and Tito Jackson have scheduled a June 7 hearing on the sober home industry at the Frederick Pilot School on Columbia Rd. The hearing is set to start at 6 p.m.