SOS to comply with city's demand for site plan review, but with stipulations

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The public is invited to attend the onsite meeting, but only city officials will be allowed inside for the inspection. (Courtesy photo)

ROCHESTER - After taking the city to court over its demands they submit a Minor Site Review, SOS Recovery voluntarily submitted its application and will be inspected by city officials on Tuesday.

In the application, SOS says their premises inside First Congregational Church comprise some 1,700 square feet of office space that includes a "meeting area for the applicant to conduct activities related, primarily, to substance abuse recovery."

It also states there are normally about three employees on hand during scheduled hours of operation and no more than 20 or so "pupils" receiving services at any given time.

The four-page form was submitted with an addendum by Durbin Law of Portsmouth, which declares it was given to the city "without prejudice," a legal term that stipulates nothing in its writing can be used as evidence against SOS and First Congregational Church in any court proceeding or used as precedent.

The inspection, which will be made on Tuesday at 2 p.m., will be part of an onsite meeting of the city's Minor Site Committee, a subcommittee of the Rochester Planning Board.

The public is invited to attend the meeting, but only city officials will be allowed inside for the inspection.

Rochester City Manager Blaine Cox said today the city would have no comment on the matter. Derek R. Durbin of Durbin Law was not immediately available for comment.

In February John Burns, director of SOS Recovery, called the demand for a Minor Site Plan review "discriminatory," adding there were many churches in the city doing outreach with vulnerable populations that weren't being harassed like he was.

SOS Recovery Services operates out of the First Congregational Church on South Main Street. The church also hosts AA meetings, a Dover Adult Learning Center and other help groups, but it's SOS that has drawn the most scrutiny by the city, scrutiny that began with a June 2018 petition that said illegal drug activity was rampant in the neighborhood and that the homeless and drug using community were using the church as sanctuary.

The petition, which had 66 signatures including several downtown business owners, concluded that drug activity had increased in the past several months.

It also claimed that SOS staff and members of the First United Congregational Church where their offices are located had encouraged drug users from outside Rochester to come and live at the church.

Soon after petitioners presented their claims, the City Council determined they were unfounded, but shortly thereafter, code enforcement and zoning officials from the city showed up unannounced at SOS to inspect their operation, which led to the review process being implemented.

In September, the city ordered the center closed until the minor site plan operation was completed. When SOS refused, the city filed a petition in District Court, demanding more than $23,650 in penalties, which drew SOS's electronic filing for an injunction against the city's filing and monetary demands.

SOS Recovery is underwritten by Goodwin Community Health of Dover, where SOS has another office in commercial space at the corner of Broadway and Central Avenue.

If Rochester approves the Minor Site Plan Review application it is expected that would end all court proceedings.

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