With few guidelines regulating sober houses in N.H., local communities often dictate whether they can be built

  • Randy Bartlett, founder and executive director of Riverbank House, stands outside the original Riverbank House, which is now one of nine properties on the Riverbank campus in Laconia. Photos by ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Riverbank House founder and executive director Randy Bartlett (left) and program director Mike Metz talk about the expanding drug treatment and recovery facility from The Launch building on the Riverbank campus in Laconia on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A meeting reminder is seen in the kitchen of The Victorian building at Riverbank House in Laconia on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • The shared outdoor space at Riverbank House is seen from The Victorian building on the property in Laconia on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Randy Bartlett, founder and executive director of Riverbank House, talks about the expanding drug treatment and recovery facility in Laconia. Riverbank is in the process of adding two properties to the campus. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • A copy of Alcoholics Anonymous is seen on a table in The Launch building at Riverbank House in Laconia on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Andi Bauer and others work on the future Karma Kafe on Thursday, a restaurant being built at Riverbank House. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, October 24, 2016

Nestled between Lake Winnisquam and Lake Opechee on Church Street in downtown Laconia, a small campus of old buildings has been converted into a new “recovery neighborhood.”

What started as a one-building treatment center in 2012 inside a green, three-story Victorian house with brown and gold trim has expanded into a nine-building campus, forming a “perfect horseshoe” around the Winnipesaukee River, says Randy Bartlett, the Riverbank House founder and executive director. Bartlett has plans to buy two more houses, bringing the total footprint of his sober living community to 11 buildings.

Most of those properties are renovated single-family houses for men in long-term recovery from drugs and alcohol.

Bartlett has faced no opposition from Laconia city officials as he’s transformed this part of the city. But others aren’t as fortunate.

Sober living houses and recovery centers can face opposition within communities because neighbors or municipal officials say the facilities don’t fit in with local zoning.

Just as the need for recovery and treatment facilities has peaked in a state ravaged by addiction, little guidance exists for communities on how to allow and regulate these facilities and businesses.

Many sober houses fall under the zoning for single family homes because there are no locks on the doors or meals provided, unlike a boarding house. Boarding and rooming houses have to abide by stricter rules and safety codes, like having a sprinkler system in the facility.

Sober houses being designated as single family homes is legal under federal law. People recovering from addiction fall under the umbrella of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and sober living is considered an aid to that disability. Therefore, sober houses are protected under the Fair Housing Act.

In 2002, a federal judge ruled that the city of West Haven, Conn., discriminated against a sober house and broadened the definition of “family” homes to include unrelated individuals who share common spaces and emotional support in recovery.

In New Hampshire, since no state rules or guidelines exist for sober houses, much is decided on a case-by-case basis.

In the neighboring city of Franklin, Jim Joy opened a sober house called Driven By Circumstances earlier this year, providing a place for about nine men to live during the early stages of their recovery, but he was given a cease and desist order after opening his doors.

Like Bartlett, Joy bought a house, spent months fixing it up in his spare time and for a few months, men of all ages who wanted to maintain their sobriety stayed there.

Joy’s house rules required the men to have a job or be seeking employment, pay rent and agree to random drug testing. They shared meals and downtime in the living room after work, and developed a network of friends to go to 12-step meetings.

“It’s not a rooming house by any description,” Joy insisted. “We’re more like a family than most families are.”

But earlier this year, Joy got a letter from Franklin city officials saying he couldn’t continue. The city didn’t agree with his insistence that his facility was covered by Fair Housing and said he would be shut down unless he got a sprinkler system installed.

Joy said his primary concern when he got the letter was finding replacement housing for the men who were living there.

“It’s not about the money,” Joy said. “I needed to make sure these guys had accommodations.”

He still has three to four men living in the downstairs portion of the house, while he has the entire upstairs to himself.

Joy is mulling over whether to pursue further legal action, but is unsure he’ll be able to afford a lawyer.

“I’m really at a loss,” he said. “It’s highly discriminatory what they’re doing. We’re a protected class and we’re being refused our rights.”

New rules surrounding sober living facilities could be coming in the next year. New Futures Community Engagement Director Cheryle Pacapelli said a state task force is currently working on state standards for sober and recovery houses.

The task force has been working on the standards for about three months, but it could take up to a year for them to be completed.

Pacapelli said she hasn’t heard of too many sober houses facing opposition from cities and towns, “but I do anticipate it.”

Bartlett said when he bought the original Riverbank House four years ago, he wasn’t envisioning building the recovery neighborhood that exists today.

“I did not have a plan like this,” Bartlett said. “Each time we saw the need, we bought more real estate.”

Bartlett said Riverbank maintains a good relationship with city officials and its neighbors. The recovery center has its own security measures, with infrared cameras set up around the properties in case any resident tries to sneak out after curfew.

“In the beginning, there was scuttlebutt,” Bartlett said. “Since then, we’ve had nothing but compliments.”

Residents have put a lot of work into landscaping the area around the properties, and keeping the houses clean is a big staff rule.

“You drive by the properties, they’re well maintained,” said Laconia City Manager Scott Myers, adding the city has gotten no complaints from neighbors.

“Overall, they’re a stand-up type of neighbor with the building upkeep and lack of problems,” Myers said. “They wouldn’t be in this business if the demand wasn’t there.”

Riverbank is unique for its size, as well as its integration into the community; its community center, complete with a gym and yoga studio, is already open to the public. Riverbank does not exclusively follow a 12-step model, encouraging its residents to try non-spiritual recovery as well.

Bartlett is in the process of transforming part of the old Winnisquam Printing building into a new restaurant.

Former Riverbank residents work as yoga teachers and personal trainers, and Bartlett envisions the restaurant he’s building as a way to train future residents how to be a line cook or a waiter.

“Real-life experience is a lot of what happens here,” he said.

Citing his own recovery experience and scientific studies, Bartlett is adamant that those in recovery should be given as much time as they need in structured facilities. Some of the men in his program have been living in Riverbank sober houses for as long as three years, going to work and paying rent.

“There is no duration” of stay, Bartlett said. “We’re not getting people well saying, ‘go back to your old life.’”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)