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Applicant, opponents spar over residential recovery facility

Craig Halford, First Contact's founder and president, testifies during a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing about plans for a residential addiction recovery center in Saluda. Craig Halford, First Contact's founder and president, testifies during a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing about plans for a residential addiction recovery center in Saluda.

Six hours of legal arguments, neighbors’ comments and expert witness testimony were not enough to settle a permit request for a residential recovery facility in a rural area of Saluda.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment adjourned a hearing on the proposed rehab facility at 10 o’clock last Wednesday night and agreed to reconvene on Nov. 21. At stake is whether a Christian-based nonprofit will be able to operate a rehab center in a million-dollar home out in the country, its third attempt to site a residential recovery program.

Craig Halford, president and founder of First Contact Ministries, filed an application on Aug. 31 with the zoning board seeking a special-use permit to operate the treatment center in a 5,200-square-foot home on 34 acres. The four-bedroom, five-bath home at 4353 Fork Creek Road is valued at $928,800 for tax purposes and currently listed for sale for $1.3 million. First Contact has a pending offer to purchase the home, owned by Linda M. Neufield of Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, Halford confirmed during the hearing.

First Contact plans to use five to eight rooms to house 10 to 18 patients in residential treatment. The Zoning Board of Adjustment ruled that three neighboring property owners — Lucinda A. Hemenway, Allison Hull and Orchard Lake Campground owners Kirk and Konnie Hall and their daughter, Hannah — had standing to formally oppose the permit.

Brian Gulden, the attorney for the opponents, said that the applicant had not proved that the proposed use “would not materially endanger the public health, safety or welfare; would not substantially injure the value of property or improvements in the area; and would not be in harmony with the surrounding area,” the standard under the county land development code for winning a special-use permit.

First Contact is represented by attorney Derek Jones. John Noor represents the seller. Jones argued that the land-use code does not place the burden of proof on the applicant to show that a recovery center would not harm the neighborhood but said he was prepared to rebut any evidence put forth by the opponents purporting to show that the facility would cause harm.

Under questioning from Jones, county Zoning Administrator Matt Champion confirmed that a treatment facility is a permitted use in the R2R residential zoning district.

The facility would house up to 18 men aged 18 to 70 years old for addiction recovery, Halford testified under questioning from Gulden. The men would have to be detoxed before they could be admitted for treatment. Halford explained that Henderson County’s planning department had guided the nonprofit on what it would need to get a permit.

“I spend my days working with people who struggle with addiction and (devote) little to no time studying the law,” he said. “What I did was I said, ‘This is something we would like to do’ … and we were told that here’s the category we would fit under. It was the only category we would fit under. We had absolutely nothing to do with the category we were placed under.”

In his testimony Halford also said:

  • “We have models for barrack-style bedrooms. There’s a reason for that. There’s a strategy for that.”
  • “The ratio will be one staff member for every five men. We’re going to begin with one and then we’re going to grow and it could take us as much as a year to get to full capacity.” The staff members would provide 24-hour coverage, living in a separate bedrooms.
  • “It’s going to be treated like a normal house. The people we bring in there are not people that need to be incarcerated. We will have alarms and cameras.”
  • “Yes, we will protect their health, safety and welfare. We will have peer support counseling working with them every day, recognized by the state, and we will have professional licensed counselors to come and counsel these gentleman. We will be an adult men’s Christ-centered recovery center.”
  • An engineer and contractor who evaluated the septic tank and drain field system reported to Halford that “it would handle what we intend to do.”
  • For the last 10 years First Contact has referred patients to more than 300 Christ-centered rehab facilities. “We are navigators and also have all-night patient services. We have relationships with many of those rehab facilities.”
  • It’s “highly, highly unlikely” that a client who wanted to leave treatment would walk out and use the narrow rural roads on foot. If they wanted to leave, “we’d take them.”
  • Clients “will not come on our property with any substance in their system.” Clients will have to detox for three days to two weeks or longer, depending on the drugs they were using.
  • “There are no plans at this time to build anything else than what already exists. That’s what we’re applying for — what currently exists.”
  • “We’ve done some study and we will produce evidence” that the rehab center is compatible with the surrounding area.
  • Placement coordinators will do an intake evaluation of potential patients, followed by a screener and finally a six-person admissions committee. “We test them, we search them. Our intention is to help them. ... We have staff that know whether an individual is truly serious about turning their life around, if they’re truly serious about wanting to quit.”
  • Addiction has a “dire” effect on public health. “I’ve seen those people that have been freed from their addiction and they’re living lives where they are free from that bondage. They are productive, they have jobs. They have been reunited with their family. Instead of a being burden to the taxpayer, they are contributing to the taxpayers.”

Gulden pressed Halford on how First Contact could be exempt from regulations when state law limits the exemption to nonprofits that don’t receive state or federal funding. Although First Contact got a $1.5 million grant from the N.C. General Assembly, “the state does not fund us on a continual basis,” Halford said. “The funding we got was for the purchase of a facility and not an ongoing funding.” The nonprofit also got a separate $500,000 grant from the state. Halford later said the exemption comes from a separate section of the law that excludes 24-hour nonprofit facilities that provide shelter and recovery from alcohol and other drug addictions through a 12-step program, self-help, peer role modeling and self-governing.

Testifying for the opponents, an Asheville-based substance abuse counselor, clinical addiction specialist and licensed clinical mental health counselor said that a client who left the facility before completing treatment could walk on the road. The counselor, Beverly Barnes, testified that people leave residential treatment programs under a variety of circumstances. Granting objections by Jones and Noor, the zoning board barred Barnes from testifying about what might happen at the Fork Creek Road center.

Mark Teague, owner of J.M. Teague Engineering & Planning in Waynesville, testified for the opponents about his company’s study of Fork Creek Road, a 20-feet wide roadway with shoulders from zero to 5 feet wide, no sidewalks and low traffic volume — 90 cars a day. The report concluded that “if pedestrians were on that road that it would create a risk to the pedestrian and the traveling public.”

Board member Mark Casoria asked what would happen if the landowner instead decided to build 27 homes on the property, which the current zoning allows. Teague responded that, given the rule of thumb of 10 trips a day per household, the development would generate 270 trips daily.

The final witness for the opponents was Bennie Waller, who holds doctorate degrees in finance and management information systems as well as a license in real estate and a teaching focus on appraising. A specialist in how disruptive uses affect property values, Waller was hired to testify about drug rehab centers’ effect on the value of neighboring properties. But Dr. Waller’s planned testimony fizzled out when the board established that he was not a licensed real estate appraiser and ruled that he could not offer an opinion on the Saluda project.

“My concern is he has no experience in North Carolina, certainly not Henderson County,” board Chair Steve Dozier said.

Waller then became combative, calling Dozier’s objection “the worst answer you could have made” and ripping the board’s actions as “smoke and mirrors.”

With more witnesses still to call plus closing arguments and the zoning board’s deliberations on the permit request, board members, First Contact and the objectors agreed to halt the hearing and reconvene at 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21.