Comments sought on drug rehab center
by ryan bentley news-review staff writer
Petoskey planning commissioners will consider a controversial land use request that would allow a residential substance abuse treatment center to be established on the city's northeast side when they meet Thursday, April 21.
The planning commission's regular meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at city hall, 101 E. Lake St. During the meeting, commissioners will take public input regarding Battle Creek-based TIA Corp.'s request for a special use permit. If the planning commission approves the permit, TIA expects to acquire the former Reus Residence convalescent home on Arlington Avenue just east of MacDonald Drive, expand the building and operate a 63-bed residential substance abuse treatment center there.
Planning commission chairman Gary Greenwell said planning commissioners will need to determine whether the treatment center fits the definition of a convalescent home, which would be allowed to operate under the property's multi-family residential zoning if a special use permit is issued.
"It is a special use and we're looking at the criteria," planning commissioner John Jorgensen said. "If it meets the definition, there has to be some compelling reason not to approve."
Greenwell and Jorgensen said many people have contacted them and city hall to voice objections to a drug rehabilitation center locating there, noting that some who live nearby have concerns about security at the center. The planning commissioners noted that security is among the issues they'll try to learn more about as the discussion of the permit continues.
The city received a petition signed by about 54 people from Petoskey and surrounding communities which requests the drug and alcohol center not be allowed to come to the former Reus Center. It notes concerns about security risks and depression of property values.
Like Narconon Stonehawk, a TIA-owned center now in its third year of operation in Pennfield Township near Battle Creek, the one proposed in Petoskey would use the Narconon treatment methodology. As Narconon centers work to address clients' addictions to substances, TIA partner Kate Wickstrom said they do not administer other drugs in the process.
"We use a very holistic approach, using vitamins, minerals, massage therapy, lots of rest," she said, adding that a client would be taken to a hospital immediately if severe withdrawal symptoms emerge.
The Petoskey center would offer structured programming for clients six days a week, with visitation available on Sundays. Nursing staff would be on duty around the clock, with physicians making daily visits and remaining on call at other times.
The Narconon approach was created in the mid-1960s by William Benitez, who was then an inmate in an Arizona prison with a history of drug use. He formulated the approach using ideas from "Fundamentals of Thought," a book by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. After sharing the program with other inmates, he enlisted the help of Hubbard and his organizations in developing the program outside prison walls.
Wickstrom noted that TIA's Narconon programs are not affiliated with the Church of Scientology.
"We are purely secular from the church," she said. "The church has nothing to do with our program here."
Wickstrom, who has 25 years of work experience in the drug rehabilitation field, said the Battle Creek center was established after her business partner and former husband, Per, attended a Narconon program elsewhere and used it successfully in dealing with his own addiction.
"Being from (Northern Michigan), we're always looking at facilities that are for sale and available," she said. "We feel that the one in Petoskey meets our needs.
"Our services are in demand. Addiction has gotten out of control in today's society We all know somebody nowadays ... who's suffered from addiction."
The Stonehawk center is currently at its capacity of 100 clients and has a waiting list, Wickstrom said. The Battle Creek location currently has state licensing, and she added that the same would be pursued for the Petoskey center.
Dick Crossland, who divides his time between the Bay View Association and Ohio, said security is one concern which makes him question the plans to set up a Narconon center on Arlington Avenue - near residential neighborhoods like Bay View and facilities like Northern Michigan Hospital's Lockwood-MacDonald campus which keep drugs on site.
Noting that many of Bay View's youth tend to travel around the summer community on foot without supervision, Crossland wondered whether the center's proximity might pose risks for them.
He added that he'd like to see planning commissioners delay a decision on the special use permit until more Bay View residents can have an opportunity to be part of the discussion.
"I think that bears a much more thorough and harder look than I would guess it has been given so far," Crossland said of the Narconon proposal. "It's something that shouldn't be rushed ahead until the Bay View community is in the area for the summer season"
Wickstrom said the Stonehawk center currently draws about 60 percent of its clients from out of state, but added that Michigan residents are making up a larger and larger share of the enrollment as the center becomes established.
"They're good people," Wickstrom said. "They come from good backgrounds, good families. They're not the stigma-type addict. These people have jobs, they have families."
TIA does not accept clients who have felony convictions or those who have mental illness diagnoses accompanying their substance abuse issues, Wickstrom added, though her Narconon program may cooperate with the courts to assist people who face charges like drunken driving and would like help in treating their dependency.
Plans call for the Petoskey center to have two security staff on duty between noon and 8 a.m., Wickstrom said. During daytime hours, she said other employees will be able to tend to security issues if they arise. TIA expects to employ someone with a law enforcement background as its head of security in Petoskey.
The center would not be a lockdown facility, and any clients wishing to leave the program could do so, Wickstrom added. But policy would require a staff member to accompany a client when traveling into the community or to see a departing client out of town.
Pennfield Township clerk Carole Bammer said that when TIA sought township approval to set up its Stonehawk center on St. Mary's Lake, "the neighbors were very skeptical," and that a few moved from the area in response to the arrival. Since the center began operating, she added that township officials haven't fielded any complaints about it.
"As far as I can hear, with the neighbors and the (St. Mary's Lake Association), it hasn't had any problems," she said. Bammer said neighbors' concerns about a substance abuse center along the lake likely resulted from the "newness of the idea."
The Petoskey Planning Commission will take public comment this week on TIA Corp.'s request for a special use permit to establish a substance abuse treatment center on Arlington Avenue. Input will be sought during the planning commission meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21, at city hall, 101 E. Lake St.
Ryan Bentley can be contacted at 439-9342, or firstname.lastname@example.org.