Addiction Center troubles Green Township

David Danzis of the New Jersey Herald first reported on this yesterday:

GREEN -- The township Land Use Board has received an application for a property on Pequest Road which, if approved, would permit the operation of a high-end inpatient substance abuse treatment facility.

Ambrosia Real Estate of North Jersey LLC filed an application on March 6 seeking a conditional use variance, or in the alternative, a use variance, permitting the operation of an approximately 30-bed treatment facility.

The application had not been placed on an upcoming board agenda as of Friday afternoon, but a technical review committee did briefly review the application on March 16, according to meeting minutes. On April 13, a site visit of the proposed location at 73 Pequest Road was attended by members of the board and about 60 residents.

The applicant is part of an affiliated group of facilities known as Ambrosia Treatment Centers, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Ambrosia operates a state licensed facility in Medford (Burlington County) in addition to three in Florida and one in Beverly Hills, Calif. The Medford location is a New Jersey Alliance of Recovery Residences certified residence.

According to a statement required to accompany the application, the dormitory facility would be an additional 15,000- to 18,000-square-foot residence on the property. The residential structure located on the 44.4-acre property would remain and serve as the primary clinical care and treatment facility, according to Ambrosia Real Estate of North Jersey LLC's legal counsel, Holly Schepisi, of Huntington Bailey LLP in Westwood.

The average patient stay at Ambrosia's residential facilities is 30 days or longer, as directed by clinical staff. Schepisi said the clients are all voluntary and are pre-screened before admission. She added that residents are not court mandated and all are "strictly non-violent."

The number of anticipated staff would be between 16 and 24 employees rotating on three shifts and would include clinical therapists, a facility director, support staff, registered nurses, a medical director, and kitchen and maintenance staff.

The applicant's planner and engineer are prepared to testify that relief ought to be granted because the variance being sought is "entirely consistent" with the township's Master Plan and Zoning Code, according to the submitted statement.

"Relief can be provided without any detriment to the public good," the statement reads.

Schepisi said any township resources -- such as medical, police (Green uses the New Jersey State Police) or fire -- would be consistent with a hospital or nursing home, both of which would be permitted uses of the proposed property, and because of required safety features -- such as sprinklers -- would use far less resources than a comparable house or farm in the township.

Schepisi said the location was chosen specifically because of its remoteness, which would provide privacy for patients and staff while not disturbing the surrounding community.

"Because of this property's unique location, size of 44.4 acres coupled with the private nature and characteristics of the property which will be maintained, the public benefit far outweighs any impairment to the zone plan and zoning ordinance," according to the submitted statement by the applicant.

The property has a listed asking price of $2.4 million. The adjoining property is roughly 19 acres and has an asking price of $395,000. The applicant is considering purchasing both parcels to provide an additional buffer.

The next Township Committee meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday. The next Land Use Board meeting is at 7 p.m. May 11.

http://www.njherald.com/20170430/ambrosia-treatment-centers-eyeing-green

Watchdog has done some research on Ambrosia Treatment Centers and what we came up with are some warning signs for Green Township officials and residents who are concerned about their community.  First, it is important to remember that these type of businesses are highly profitable and that they employ a lot of legal and political/lobbyist muscle. 

A review of their conduct in Florida, where Ambrosia Treatment Centers opened its first facilities, is instructive.  And how they address opposition to their facilities is particularly instructive.

In this case, the attorney for Ambrosia Treatment Centers is Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a Republican from Bergen County.  Schepisi could be involved in other ways as well, such as construction management, as her personal financial disclosure notes a number of related entities:

It is important for both the township and its residents to recognize that Ambrosia Treatment Centers has no qualms about going to court to get its way.  And the legal tools that they employee are the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. 

Americans with Disabilities Act

In order for an individual’s drug addiction to be considered a disability under the ADA, it would have to pose a substantial limitation on one or more major life activities. In addition, the individual could not currently use illegal drugs. The ADA requires that drug and alcohol addicts cannot be subjected to discrimination, including discrimination through a city’s zoning restrictions.

Fair Housing Act

It prohibits municipalities and other local government entities from making zoning or land use decisions or implementing land use policies that exclude or discriminate against individuals with disabilities, including recovering drug and alcohol addicts. Current substance users are not considered disabled.

Rehabilitation Act

It recognizes people with drug addiction who are participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and are no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs. The act prohibits discrimination against people with the disability by any entity that receives federal financial assistance.

Source: www.justice.gov; www.usccr.gov

Yes, drug and alcohol addiction is considered a disability under federal law, so both Township officials and residents have to be very, very careful how they express their concerns lest they provide fodder for a law suit.  Don't make the mistakes that Port St. Lucie made.  There, individual local elected officials were sued personally.  This pressured them to reverse course.  Township officials and residents interested in protecting their community but avoiding these pitfalls should read the news clips below:

Stuart News, The (FL)

September 8, 2013

Detox center rejection may lead to lawsuit

PORT ST. LUCIE — If elected officials vote to reject a proposed detoxification center in the western part of the city, they will please hundreds of nearby residents who have mobilized to fight the project. But the city could open the door for a federal discrimination lawsuit.

And this will not be the first one.

Two drug treatment centers have filed complaints within the past year against Port St. Lucie. Other South Florida municipalities have faced similar lawsuits for not allowing drug treatment centers and sober homes.

Recovering drug addicts are considered disabled and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. The Housing Act prohibits local governments from making zoning or land use decisions that exclude or discriminate against disabled people.

A report by the Department of Children and Families found that federal courts have held government officials personally liable for decisions that violate the Housing Act...

 “There will be car thefts, home invasions, muggings, rapes and more,” resident Ed Giesing wrote in a letter to the editor.

Comments like Giesing’s could be used in a lawsuit. They could show there was discrimination against recovering drug addicts if the city rejects the detox center, Senior Assistant City Attorney Pam Booker told residents on Tuesday.

“When local governments give in to political pressure by residents, they lose,” she said. “It just doesn’t end well.”

Local governments can act on the basis of protecting the public health and safety of people affected by drug treatment centers and sober homes, the DCF report states. However, the governments must show objective recent evidence and not unsubstantiated assumptions.

Some local governments involved in discrimination lawsuits under the ADA and FHA have paid $1 million to $3 million in legal fees and damages, Booker said.

...Ambrosia Treatment Center sued the city when the officials denied a rezoning request for two homes on Duxbury Avenue, near Southwest Bayshore Boulevard. The center uses the homes as housing for patients receiving treatment off site.

“The City Commission and Planning and Zoning Board have held a number of hearings where members of the community have voiced NIMBY (‘Not in My Backyard’) comments opposing housing and treatment facilities for people in recovery,” the lawsuit states.

Ambrosia dropped the lawsuit when the city granted the rezoning request, Booker said.

Stuart News, The (FL)

September 25, 2013

Lawyer: Hearing provided fuel for lawsuit

PORT ST. LUCIE — A proposed drug treatment facility was rejected by City Council, but Monday night’s meeting to discuss it could have not gone better for the project’s proponents, their lawyer said...

“Last night’s hearing could not have gone better for us in terms of giving us ammunition for a federal lawsuit,” Green said Tuesday. “We got abundant evidence of public and official hostility against people with disabilities.”

Green said he is studying different legal options he can pursue, including a federal lawsuit and another one at the state level. He did not explain what the latter would allege.

Recovering drug and alcohol addicts are considered disabled and protected by two federal laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, making it illegal for local governments to create laws that deny those people access to housing.

Green sent a letter to Port St. Lucie officials Sept. 20 asking them to not destroy or conceal any files, emails, voice mails or records that could be used as evidence in a possible lawsuit.

James K. Green, the West Palm Beach lawyer representing the treatment facility, states in the lawsuit that the city, Councilwoman Michelle Lee Berger and Mayor JoAnn Faiella violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Recovering drug and alcohol addicts are considered disabled under those federal acts, and denying them housing can be considered discriminatory and illegal.

The lawsuit asks the city to award unspecified damages to the treatment facility's developers for harm caused by discriminatory practices.

Not-in-my-backyard

"This case presents the familiar conflict between the legal principle of nondiscrimination and the political principle of not-in-my-back-yard ('NIMBY')," the lawsuit states.

The complaint quotes statements made by Berger, Faiella and residents in public meetings as evidence of discrimination.

"We are being targeted as a community. ... You can sue me personally, not the city, if you don't like my statement," Berger is quoted as saying. "Who the heck is happy when you buy a house ... watch the value go down. ... This is definitely worth going to court for ... if we can't regulate it by zoning."

Port St. Lucie Spokesman Ed Cunningham, Berger and Faiella could not be reached for comment.

A resident is quoted as saying at a public meeting, "I can't believe this is happening in Port St. Lucie with normal people. ... I'm scared to be right next door." (Treasure Coast Newspaper, December 31, 2013)

Green Township officials and residents do have recourse, but they must be careful in pursuing it.  Don't give Ambrosia Treatment Centers any ammunition to use against you.  Watchdog is exploring ways to address this matter.  One way is to examine the infrastructure needs of such a facility (police, fire, EMT) that might be lacking in Green Township.  Another is to demand community oversight.

Ambrosia Treatment Centers and Rutgers University recently made an agreement to test new forms of treatment for addiction.  This is certainly something the public should monitor and insist on having a seat at the table.  This Newswire story was released by Ambrosia Treatment Centers on September 6, 2016:

The Ambrosia Treatment Center (Ambrosia) announced today that it will partner with Rutgers University’s Center of Alcohol Studies to advance addiction treatment. The partnership aims to build on decades of research by testing new conceptual models and identifying evidence-based best practices for addiction treatments with the goal of ultimately finding practical ways to improve client services and outcomes, and serve as a foundation for strengthening addiction education.

“We are very excited to be partnering with Ambrosia to integrate drug and alcohol dependence research with community treatment approaches to find feasible strategies to improve the way the disease of addiction is treated,” said Dr. Marsha Bates, acting director of Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies. “As the number of drug and alcohol dependent individuals continues to grow, we believe that collaborations, such as this one, are needed to help society find more answers.”

“Research is critical,” said Jerry Haffey, CEO of Ambrosia. “By tracking all data points – including seemingly unrelated details, like how often a client goes to the gym – we can come up with formulas for each individual that increases the likelihood of their permanent recovery. Rutgers has so much to offer, such as proven research processes, advanced data modeling and neuropsychological testing. Each evidence-based plan we tailor will now be that much more effective.”

Both entities are known for their leadership in the field of addiction.

Rutgers University’s Center of Alcohol Studies was the first interdisciplinary research center in the world devoted to the study of alcohol use, problems and treatment, a model that has been replicated hundreds of times. The center’s mission now includes a significant focus on drugs other than alcohol in response to growing social and scientific concerns with trends in drug use, abuse and dependence.

Ambrosia is accredited by the Joint Commission and has helped more than 10,000 clients with five alcohol and drug rehab centers across the country. The company is known for innovation, actively lobbying for legislation and publicly fighting to end the stigma of addiction.

The partnership has already started developing new strategies for measuring the processes of treatment and its outcomes, a first step in understanding how people change during treatment.

“We aim to improve the lives of those struggling with addiction,” added Dr. Bates.

Dr. Bates is working with Dr. Jennifer Buckman, interim director of the Education & Training Division at the Center of Alcohol Studies. Both are funded by the National Institutes of Health to study the use of breathing techniques to reduce addiction cravings and map how alcohol and drug cues affect the brain and trigger relapse.

Green Township residents and officials must be disciplined in their approach to this and take the emotions out of it.  Ask tough questions, demand oversight, and make Ambrosia Treatment Centers understand that if they build this facility, they will have an ongoing, active partner -- an informed and questioning public -- to answer to, day-in and day-out.

We are continuing our research...