Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Board to decide on drug treatment facility permit

by on June 29, 2014 1:59 AM

The Indiana County Zoning Hearing Board is convening Wednesday morning to announce whether it will permit a proposed addiction treatment facility in Cherryhill Township.

More likely than not, the board will issue the permit, despite neighborhood objections. However, the facility, which is being put together by the startup nonprofit SpiritLife Inc., faces other permitting and financial challenges. Still, obtaining the hearing board’s permit is an important step toward opening.

SpiritLife is proposing to open a men’s only, residential treatment facility and detoxification unit in what was once a personal care home run by the charitable Eastern Orthodox Foundation. The home closed several years ago, and the property has sat vacant since. SpiritLife is leasing the property from the foundation.

Neighbors, who are not keen on living near recovering drug addicts, have mounted a protest, saying that such a facility violates the spirit of the county’s Special Recreation and Conservation Zoning Ordinance.

The ordinance, created in the 1970s, is meant to keep at bay commercial and industrial development in areas around county parks.

The Eastern Orthodox property is off Route 422, north of the Yellow Creek Lake’s eastern end. It falls just inside of the protected zone around Yellow Creek State Park.

The ordinance doesn’t entirely prohibit commercial and industrial use of property around the parks. In 2011, for instance, a Kittanning company won a conditional use permit to drill a Marcellus shale gas well less than a half-mile from the lake’s northern shore.

SpiritLife, too, seems to meet the conditions necessary for winning a permit, according to John Barbor, the zoning hearing board chairman. During a hearing earlier this month to consider arguments for and against, Barbor said that on first impression it appears the facility met all but two conditions, that it obtain an occupancy permit and that it obtain an operating license.

Even without them, the board could grant the special use permit on the condition that they obtain the license and the occupancy permit.

To obtain an operating license, SpiritLife will need to hire a medical director, as per state regulations. And to do that, it needs the money to pay for one. The money isn’t there yet, but Lou Wagner, SpiritLife’s executive director, is working on finding it.

He said he is trying to raise $250,000 through grants and donations, which some area banks would match. Taken together, that $500,000 would serve as the bridge financing needed to get the facility up and running, he said.

The facility also will need to obtain an occupancy permit from the township. But that, too, could pose something of an issue.

The township’s contracted building inspector, Terry Lichtenfels, of TKL Code Inspection Services, insisted during the hearing that SpiritLife will need to install a sprinkler system in the building. Wagner, however, said he believes it is not required to have one.

Although neighbors are opposed to the facility, some local organizations — the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug & Alcohol Commission, The Open Door Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Center, which does not have an inpatient facility, and Indiana Regional Medical Center — said they support the creation of a residential treatment facility.

Officials from all three organizations said a local treatment center and detoxification unit is something the area sorely is in need of. That’s especially so for the hospital, whose emergency room is often the place of last resort for people suffering from withdrawal.

Larry Sedlemeyer, the hospital’s senior vice president for business development and planning, said the hospital has noticed an increase in the number of people turning to the emergency room for help with substance abuse and mental health problems, services it is not meant to provide.

Whereas emergency room staffers were seeing maybe one or two people a day with those problems, they are now counting five per day. A detox unit within the county would ease that burden, Sedlemeyer said.

“We certainly welcome (SpiritLife) into the Indiana County community,” he said. “It’s a greatly needed service, and I think they’re going to do it very well,” he said.

Neighbors, though, fear that all the center will do will be to concentrate a criminal element in one area.

Vince Mercuri, executive director of The Open Door, said those fears are largely unfounded and reflect the stigma that surrounds those who suffer from addiction.

“They’re scared of what they don’t understand,” he said.

Wagner said the truth of it is that addicts are already in the community, buying, using and selling drugs and sometimes stealing to support their habit. Meanwhile, the people who would be in the facility have recognized that they have a problem and would be working to overcome it, he said.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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