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First Contact makes case for rehab center; zoning hearing continued

First Contact President Craig Halford testifies at zoning hearing. First Contact President Craig Halford testifies at zoning hearing.

In a second day of testimony in a zoning hearing for a drug treatment facility, First Contact Ministries officials and other witnesses explained how the facility would operate and offered assurances that it would not pose a threat to surrounding residents.

The Henderson County Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is hearing First Contact’s request for a special-use permit for the 20,000-square-foot facility, continued the hearing for a second time and scheduled to resume in one week, on Oct. 17.
The zoning case is being heard in a quasi-judicial hearing in which attorneys for the applicants and opponents make arguments and question sworn witnesses in a courtroom-like setting. Most of Wednesday’s hearing was taken up by the applicant’s case.

Attorney Derek Jones questioned the prospective director of the facility, a career law officer, a real estate appraiser, First Contact President Craig Halford and Mud Creek Baptist Church minister Greg Mathis to lay out a case that the facility would serve an urgent community need, would not result in depreciation of neighboring properties and would not endanger residents of nearby homes.
In cross examination, attorney Brian Gulden tried to show that the center would be defined as mental health facility because it treats substance abuse and would come under separate state guidelines.

The first witness for the opposition as the hearing closed was Janet Howell, who testified that she looked at a home in Dunroy last spring and decided not to buy when she heard about the rehab center. Gulden is expected to build a case that the rehab center would negatively affect property values.

In building the case for a special use permit, Jones called Christian Gowin, who would serve as director of the facility if it wins approval; Halford, First Contact founder and president; Mathis, the senior pastor of the 4,000-member Mud Creek Baptist Church; Jeff Naber, a former Hendersonville police officer, Henderson County sheriff's deputy and state and federal probation officer, security consultant for the Billy Graham Center in Charlotte and counselor for law enforcement agencies in crisis.

Gowin, who served as assistant director of a faith-based rehab center in Leesburg, Florida, that serves as a model for the Mud Creek facility, testified that First Contact has safety procedures and protocols in place. Rehab patients would undergo a four-step evaluation process before being admitted.

“Those with diagnosed mental conditions will not be admitted,” he said. “The candidates that are approved follow a strict code of conduct” that governs their behavior, language and television, internet and phone use. They would be accompanied by staff whenever they left the facility and would be monitored by interior and exterior cameras.

“Safety is of the utmost important at First Contact,” Gowin said.

Gowin and Halford emphasized that the rehab clients would be there because they want to be; they would not be there as punishment or to escape work and responsibility.

In a back-and-forth that at times got testy, Gowin responded to Gulden's question about whether clients could leave the center, which plans to offer a 7½-month residential treatment program.

“It’s the United States of America," he said. "I’m not going to chain somebody to a bed, it’s a voluntary facility. They’ve gone through a vetting process, they’re coming voluntarily, they want a change in their life, they’re not looking to get out. If they’re looking to get out, we’ll know it. It's a privilege to be in this facility."

A law officer for 37 years, Naber had been a sworn witness plenty of times before and it showed. Before the first question, Naber attempted to respond to the three points on which the Board of Adjustment must base its decision: Would the facility endanger the public, would it "substantially injure" the value of adjoining property and would it be in harmony with the surrounding area?

Naber said that in his career he had seen addicts who went into rehab feeling like they were prisoners, that they were escaping responsibility or that they were willing and eager to succeed.

"The one determining factor in their success rate was if they wanted to be there or not," he said. "They are going to have people who are desperate for help." Turning to the audience of opponents on the right side of the assembly room, Naber said as many as 50 drug addicts have been coming to recovery meetings at Mud Creek for five years, causing no problems.

"They meet their every Tuesday night, they come at 6:30 and they leave about 9," he said. "They probably include career criminals, drug dealers, they include mothers, fathers, sister brothers, sons and daughters and they meet at what’s called Celebrate Recovery. ...  So, they’re already in your community. There has not been one single incident, one single crime in the past 5 years."

Property appraiser Water W. “Terry” Roberts II testified that he had evaluated home sales within a half mile of the Silver Ridge alcohol and drug rehab center in Mills River and found that the use had either had no effect or a positive effect on the market.

"If there was any impact at all it had a positive impact," he said. "As far as I can tell the impact of a facility such as these had no impact on immediate surrounding residential property."

Gulden responded that Silver Ridge was half the size of the proposed First Contact facility, would have a third as many clients and was on an 11½-acre site, versus the First Contact site of less than 1 acre.