Outgoing Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins. (File photograph.)
Neighbors and some city officials are expressing outrage a three-family house on Fifth Avenue is quietly slated to become a prerelease home for nine prison inmates.
At the center of the controversy are suspicions the Essex County Sheriff’s Department is taking advantage of a poor neighborhood, failing to consider recovering inmates’ drug temptations in an area known for its illicit drug trade and engaged in secretive negotiations for the 36-38 Fifth Ave. building. City Council President John A. Michitson and Vice President Melinda E. Barrett said they learned about plans only late last week and called for a discussion Tuesday night to see if the plan can be legally halted.
“The city is more than bearing its social responsibility to take care of people,” Barrett told WHAV. “At some point the burden has to be spread around to different communities. We really are profoundly living up to our share. Some of these things have to exist in our society, but one community can’t absorb it all,” she added. Barrett said Haverhill’s relatively low property values seem to attract such proposals. Gary Greco paid $319,000 for the just under one-acre property a year ago, according to records.
“We don’t have many details,” Michitson told WHAV. “A purpose of (Tuesday’s) meeting is to find out details and inform community.” He said the City Council and neighbors were never officially notified and “shocked” when they “found out through the grapevine.”
Michitson added he doesn’t know if the sheriff’s department wants to buy the nine-bedroom, three-bathroom multi-family home from Greco or lease it.
Upon learning of the plans Wednesday, Councilor Andy Vargas said he began notifying Acre neighborhood residents.
“Sad to see this almost fast-tracked through City Hall without notifying residents or the City Council. I notified residents immediately after Thanksgiving via personal messages and social media. This is exactly why we have neighborhood groups established!” Vargas said.
Stephen Arnold, administrator of the Acre Neighborhood Association Facebook page, took it from there.
“It’s apparently an unsupervised facility at Fifth and Cedar. I don’t personally feel it is a good location for inmates trying to recover,” Arnold told WHAV. He also expressed concern the city doesn’t have enough police officers such homes “should problems arise.” Police this year complained about their resources being tied up to tackle calls at group homes.
“Fifth Avenue has had a number of issues the past year, also several vacant homes in close proximity,” Arnold said. He added he fears the half-way house will discourage private interests that have already begun to transform the neighborhood.
“The Acre in the past year has finally begun to see some private investment going into vacant lots. I feel this will potentially scare off investment.”
Michitson said he invited City Solicitor William D. Cox Jr. to Tuesday’s meeting to see if there may be a way to fight the parting gift from outgoing Sheriff Frank G. Cousins. Others say an informal opinion suggests the Sheriff’s Department needs only a building permit to move ahead.
Asked about the reaction to his social media plea for residents to attend the council meeting, Vargas said, “Folks are upset that they weren’t notified…I’m hoping to get a greater than usual crowd at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.” Referring to a promise by a Mount Washington neighborhood group, Urban Kindness, to back residents on the other side of the city, Vargas said, “I’m proud to see residents standing up and advocating for their neighborhood, and excited to watch other Haverhill neighborhood groups come together to support the acre neighborhood.”
The Haverhill City Council meets Tuesday night at 7, at Theodore A. Pelosi Jr. City Council Chambers, City Hall, second floor.