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Zoning board OKs permit for treatment center in Saluda

Choosing a public health crisis over neighbors' expression of "generalized fear," the Henderson County Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday voted 4-1 in favor of a permit for a residential drug treatment center in a million-dollar luxury home in rural Saluda.

The board's action came in front of an audience of 60 people in the fourth night of hearings on an application by First Contact Ministries for a special-use permit to operate the treatment center for up to 18 male clients in a 5,200-square-foot home on 34 acres at 4353 Fork Creek Road. The case triggered passionate feelings on both sides. A homeowner who opposed the treatment center was ordered escorted from the room by a sheriff's deputy during a hearing on Nov. 21 and Wednesday night Fork Creek folks left the meeting furious at the outcome.

"Shame on you!" one opponent shouted when the zoning board approved the motion to OK the permit in a rollcall vote.

Board member Carlos Ruiz summed up the conflict on which the decision pivoted. Everyone regards opioid addiction as a crisis and says: "Somebody needs to do something about it. However, not in my backyard."

The victory for First Contact came after this same board denied its request to build a residential treatment center on property across Erkwood Road from Mud Creek Baptist Church in 2018 and after the pending purchase of property at another site fell through before it could get zoning approval, and it came with conditions. The conditions will be set forth in a written order that will be subject to review by the applicant, County Attorney Russ Burrell told the zoning board. The zoning approval came on a motion that requires First Contact to:

  • Install a second-story fire escape in accordance with N.C. building code and the county fire marshal's regulations.
  • Install a security system that notifies staff if a client leaves the facility at night.
  • Limit the total number of people staying overnight — clients plus staff — to 18 people.
  • Add no new buildings except on an existing concrete slab.
  • Ensure that any client who wants to leave is driven off the property by a staffer.
  • Upgrade the septic system to accommodate 18 people.
  • Maintain a whole-house generator and adequate propane for heating for 5 days.
  • Refuse admittance to a client convicted of a violent crime.

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, the agency's CEO confirmed during a hearing in October.

The zoning board, which had already heard more than 12 hours of testimony and argument over a proposal to operate a drug and alcohol treatment center in rural Saluda, reconvened the hearing Wednesday for the fourth and final night as attorneys for First Contact put up a response against a barrage of questions opponents raised.

People on either side turned out Wednesday. Most were residents of the Fork Creek Road community, others supporters of First Contact, which is an independent nonprofit that was founded at Mud Creek Baptist Church and has many advocates there whose lives have been touched by the opioid crisis.

David Oates, a retired probation and parole officer in southern Henderson County and Saluda 31 years, now works as an outpatient coordinator for First Contact's existing addiction recovery program.

"I put myself in harm's way to protect the citizens of Saluda," he said, vowing that the residential treatment center would not admit anyone who poses a threat to the community.

He testified for the applicant that the rehab center would be unlikely to cause any noise or light pollution. He narrated slides of the property and surrounding woods and ravines intended to illustrate that the home is very isolated.

Brian Gulden, who represents several close neighbors opposed to the rezoning, repeatedly questioned whether six men to a room would be too many. First Contact's founder and president, Craig Halford, explained that a barracks-style approach has been used effectively in residential rehab programs across the U.S. and had proven effective in the military forever.

"We're going to use bunk beds," he said. "I don't have a bedroom in my home that is as large as those rooms are. They very easily would accommodate that number of people."

The barracks-style arrangement works "for camaraderie, accountability and humility," Halford said. "We are not providing a hotel for them to go to with two bedrooms where their comfort is the major issue. In the period of time they're going to be in our facility we're going to teach them and train them how to live and to get along with the others and deal with issues they are struggling with. If it's good enough for the finest men in this nation (serving in the military), it's good enough for these folks."

"We just wanna help people," he added. "It's our sons, it's our daughters, it's wives, it's husbands. All we're trying to do is help them. They're not monsters, they're not criminals. It's people that have gotten themselves in a place that they can't get out of."

After the applicant finished presenting the case for the permit, zoning board Chair Steve Dozier permitted people in the community to speak.

"A facility like this is needed, just not in this area," said Debbie Lewis, of Fork Creek Road. She said she is worried that the site is so far out in the country that first responders could not get there in time in an emergency.

Residents of Fork Creek Road implored the zoning board to deny the request, saying the possibility of rehab center roaming around the community frightened them. Proponents of the rehab center urged the board to approve it, saying a treatment center is desperately needed to combat the scourge of drug addiction.

In his closing argument, Gulden said the applicant had failed to show that the facility would not adversely affect the health, safety and welfare of the public or the clients as required under the county's land-use code. "He's got no evidence that he can protect the health, safety and welfare of the community," Gulden said.

John Noor, the attorney for the seller of the property, told the zoning board that while he did not question the fear neighbors had expressed, "fear is not the standard you can apply."

"If we're not going to do this now when are we going to do it?" he asked.

Derek Jones, First Contact's attorney, said the opponents had not presented evidence to show that the facility would harm the Fork Creek community. "Generalized fear is not considered competent evidence," he said. He rebutted Gulden's assertion that Halford is required to hold a license as a therapist or counselor to direct the rehab program. The N.C. General Assembly carved out an exception, Jones said, for nonprofits providing 24-hour residential treatment for alcohol and drug addiction.