Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Residents oppose planned drug rehab facility

by on June 11, 2014 10:55 AM

Although there clearly is a need for a local addiction-treatment facility, the area around Yellow Creek State Park is not the proper place for one, several people told the Indiana County zoning hearing board on Tuesday.

During a two-hour hearing Tuesday morning, county residents argued that such a facility is not in keeping with what is supposed to be a protected conservation area around the park. Therefore, they said, the organization that is planning to open a treatment facility there should be denied the special use permit it is seeking.

That organization, the nonprofit start-up SpiritLife Inc., intends to open a 51-bed, in-patient treatment facility and detoxification unit, which would begin taking patients later this summer or early this fall, if all goes according to plan.

Named SpiritLife at St. John's Manor, the facility is to be housed in a former personal care home that was run by the charitable Eastern Orthodox Foundation. The home, and a transitional living center that was on the same Cherryhill Township property, closed a few years ago when the charity fell into financial difficulty.

SpiritLife is leasing the personal care home and roughly 10 surrounding acres from the foundation, which all together has 208 acres off Route 422.

The property falls within a land-use zone established under the county's Special Recreation and Conservation Zoning Ordinance. On the books since the early 1970s, the ordinance was adopted to limit commercial and industrial uses of land around county parks.

SpiritLife isn't necessarily seeking a new permit to set up within the zone; rather, it's asking the board to reissue a permit that had been granted to the foundation back when it ran the homeless shelter and the transitional living center.

Even then, the foundation was caring for addicts and alcoholics as many of its homeless residents were suffering from those problems, said the Rev. Timothy Kruthaupt, Church of the Resurrection's parochial vicar and a SpiritLife board member.

The difference, he said, is that now, those who come to the facility will receive treatment, not merely counseling, as they had been receiving through the foundation.

But neighbors told the hearing board that the foundation's property isn’t an ideal location for such a facility.

"Our community is not the appropriate place for such a facility," said Yellow Creek Road resident Jennifer Lieb.

And another, Lorna Vite, owner of Yellow Creek Campground and a former executive director of Indiana County Community Action Program, said that although the need for a residential treatment facility is understood, the area the SpiritLife center is to be located in is zoned for a specific use, which doesn't allow for such a facility.

Another area resident, Della Jean Manning, told the board that years ago county officials recognized the need to preserve recreation and open space in the county. Thus, they adopted the ordinance. The facility, she said, is not keeping with the spirit of the ordinance.

"What does it bring to enhance the recreational hub of the county?" she asked, presenting the hearing board with what she said were 1,074 signatures of those opposed to the facility.

Others said they feared it would change the character of the area, and not for the better. As it is, Lieb said, the area is safe and nonviolent. A rehab facility, however, would bring safety and security concerns, she said.

Michael Kennedy, a former corrections officer and a facility maintenance manager at the Indiana County Jail, said the jail is a revolving door of drug addicts. The facility, he said, wouldn't likely be any different. And gathered together, he said, the addicts there will seek out drugs, or the means to buy drugs.

In rebuttal, Lou Wagner, SpiritLife's executive director, said the arguments against the center reflect a bias against people suffering from a disease that is, in fact, treatable. He said the people at the center wouldn't be drug-crazed criminals; they'd be sick people suffering from an illness and looking for help.

Wagner told the board there is a great need for the facility, pointing out that in 2009, the state averaged nearly six drug overdose deaths per day. More locally, overdose hospital admissions increased 70 percent from 2012 to 2013 in Indiana and Armstrong counties.

The board is to issue a written decision sometime in the next 30 days.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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