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Neighbors rip proposed rehab facility in Mills River

Chad and Lynda Whitehead, who live next to the property that would become a behavorial rehab facility, urged the Mills River Town Council to deny a zoning application. Chad and Lynda Whitehead, who live next to the property that would become a behavorial rehab facility, urged the Mills River Town Council to deny a zoning application.

MILLS RIVER — Emotional and angry residents on Thursday night exhorted the Mills River Town Council to reject a zoning permit for a residential substance abuse treatment program in a large house on Old Turnpike Road during a contentious zoning war that will continue next week. After more than three hours of testimony and comments, council members called a timeout, saying they had too many unanswered questions and would resume the case next Tuesday.

An overflow crowd packed the town assembly room to oppose the request by a private health care provider to operate a residential substance abuse treatment program in a 10,000-square-foot house on 12 acres at 183 Old Turnpike Road.

Before residents spoke against the facility, attorney William Alexander clarified the use.

“Somehow people believe that this is a detoxification facility,” he said. “This is a not a detox facility and will never be a detox facility. It cannot be one under existing law.”

“Individuals must have been detoxified prior to entering into these facilities,” he said, quoting from the state administrative code defining and regulating residential treatment facilities. “Pyramid Healthcare does own and operate a couple of methadone clinics in other states. They are familiar with methadone treatment. That is not what this property is. We could not possibly under a special use permit issued by this board operate a methadone treatment facility. It just cannot be done.”

“This program is not about addiction,” the attorney said. “This program is about recovery from addiction. There are no involuntary commitments to this type of facility. These are people who are proactively seeking recovery from a problem. No alcohol and no illegal drugs will be allowed on the premises of this facility at any time. It is prohibited.”

Robert Donaldson, Pyramid's vice president for operations, answered questions on how the facility would work and what kind of clients it would serve. Clients won't be allowed to travel on their own to the facility, he said, nor would they  have a vehicle on the property. Pyramid would not admit a registered sex offender to the facility, he added, under questioning from Alexander, nor would it accept a client with a history of "socially unacceptable sexual behavior."

Doors are locked at night. "They cannot leave the premises on their own," he said. "If someone wants to leave the program, they just inform us and we transport them back to where they came from." The facility will have 10 employees, Donaldson said, and at least one staff member on duty 24 hours a day.

None of that assuaged the fears of neighbors, who said the proposal had made them fearful and anxious, worried about their safety, their property values and the character of the rural community.

"I live across the road from the property," Ruby Hernandez said. "I have lived here over 60 years. My husband traced his family back to the early 1800s. I do not want Mills River to be known for a treatment facility for mental health and drug abuse. What about our property values? They will go down."

She said she had always counted on her home and property as insurance in case she needed to sell.

"With this facility across the road, it is my belief that a sale, particularly if I needed it quickly, would become impossible," she said. "I'll be 85 in less than a month and I do not want to live the rest of my life in fear."

Mrs. Hernandez's son, Michael, said he had seen her mother turn from "a vibrant, active 84-year-old" to a fearful woman who "has to make herself get up in the morning and do the most basic tasks." The family was so worried, they sent her to the doctor. "It was only after she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression that we figured out that this facility was the cause of her medical condition," he said.
Clients would be “integrated into ordinary social and business society .. but facing mental health and behavorial issues that have led to substance abuse,” the applicant said. It would not be a detox facility, added the company, Twelve Oaks LLC. Pyramid Healthcare Inc., a Pennsylvania company that operates 62 facilities in many states including North Carolina, would operate the facility under a lease from Twelve Oaks.
The facility would provide “medical, psychological and counseling services to assist individuals in overcoming various forms of substance abuse and addiction” for up to 15 adult clients in a residential setting, Twelve Oaks said. “This use should not be confused with a traditional transition facility.” The average stay would be 28 days.
“The individual clients treated in this facility do not constitute a danger to themselves or the community at large,” the company said, though residents challenged that during a public hearing.

In a legal brief he submitted before the hearing, Alexander, on behalf of Twelve Oaks, warned that the council should not "make its decision in an arbitrary and capricious manner." He cited existing case law that said "the law does not contemplate that all persons entertaining the same views should have an unqualified right to iterate and reiterate those views in endless repetition."

A rehab facility is a permitted use in the mixed-use zoning. The council may impose conditions to protect public health and safety, Alexander said. "However, the speculative or unfounded opposition of other persons to the proposed use itself will not legally support denial of the special-use permit," he added.

But that seemed to backfire.

After the council heard from opponents, two council members brandished the 5-page brief.

"In summary, it says we as a council has to make our decision on what the Planning Board recommends — or else," Councilman Wayne Carland said, "and this is not right."

Councilman Shanon Gonce was more blunt. He noted that Alexander had polled council members when he opened his presentation on whether they had been influenced by signs posted in the town opposing the zoning permit. "This," he said, waving the brief, "is as much bull---- as them signs."

The tenor of the meeting might have been summed up late in the evening by a comment from the back row when council members were discussing legal technicalities of the zoning code.

"Screw the ordinance," an older woman shouted. "The citizens don't want it."