ST. GEORGE — Residents of a Bloomington community have expressed surprise and frustration after a drug and alcohol treatment center in the middle of their neighborhood doubled its patient capacity without their knowledge. Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Stewart who represents Southern Utah in Congress has made major strides with federal agencies towards guidelines that may make such facilities in neighborhood zones more negotiable in the future.
Steps Recovery Center, located at 3638 Sugar Leo Road in St. George, courted major controversy among neighbors in 2013 when it revealed plans to convert a mansion into a residential treatment center with plans to house 24 people; the city eventually granted permission for eight residents.
Many in the neighborhood mobilized to stop the rehab from materializing, launching protests and community meetings where hundreds of people attended to express their displeasure at the proposed facility.
Residents argued that a commercial operation didn’t belong in the neighborhood, claiming that it was too close to a nearby elementary school and that it could significantly negatively affect property values, among a plethora of other complaints.
However, due to a provision in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the establishment of such a facility could not be denied, despite its proposed location.
Citing studies, Steps Recovery Center argued that a residential setting was more therapeutic for patients than the alternative, and the center ultimately opened in January 2014.
In the years since its opening, feelings have apparently remained mixed among neighbors, some having even reportedly left the community as a result of the rehab.
It came as a major surprise for one neighbor that the treatment center was going from the originally allotted eight beds to 16 when she became curious about some construction going on at the site of the facility.
“It’s just a fact that I didn’t find out about it until I saw the heavy equipment over there lifting trusses that I questioned and wrote a letter to the mayor in February sometime questioning, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” Nickie, a neighbor preferring to be identified only by her first name, said.
“No one was informed,” Nickie said. “They just went ahead and did it.”
Steps Recovery Center asked the city for permission to increase the facility’s bed count to 24, but the city settled on eight additional beds in December 2016, allowing the rehab to operate at 16 beds.
“Where’s the letter to us, in all respect, where is the letter to the people in the neighborhood that he was going to make his own decision on that place?” Bob Cheek, another neighbor, asked.
Neither the city nor the facility made any effort to inform the neighborhood of the facility’s expansion, Cheek said.
When St. George News asked several residents living within a couple blocks of the rehab, it came as a surprise to most that the center was even planning to double its capacity, let alone that it had already completed construction to accommodate the expansion.
“Nobody even hardly knew the construction was underway,” Steps Recovery Center Marketing Director Josh Campbell said, referring to the facility’s efforts to complete the construction as unobtrusively as possible.
“There’s no additional work to be done from here forward,” Campbell said, noting that the facility had already taken care of all city and state licensure requirements.
There are no plans to expand to 24 beds at this time, Campbell said.
“It doesn’t take public action, if you will, it doesn’t take an ordinance or anything, it simply takes the City Council’s approval,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said of the city’s decision to allow the expansion.
Since the facility’s initial establishment under federal guidelines, Pike said, the city has played an active role in monitoring its impact.
“It’s really a business that’s located in a residential area, but it is something that is protected by federal law,” Pike said. “We looked into that in a very detailed way as we started this initially. We talked with our federal elected officials. We determined that there was federal protection there, and the best that we could do is to monitor it going forward.”
When Steps Recovery Center initially came to the city requesting to operate at 24 beds, Pike said city staff carefully examined how such an expansion would impact the neighborhood.
“They look at the impact that it will have based on the number of people that will be there and make sure the request is in line,” Pike said. “In our staff’s view, it was appropriate given the nature of the home and the property and so forth to go to 16 beds.”
In the three years since it opened, the mayor said the facility has been mostly unproblematic. The few times the city took issue with a component of the rehab’s operation, Steps Recovery Center was quick to correct the discrepancy, he said, such as moving its administrative offices into an offsite office building when the city found such onsite business to be nontherapeutic.
“We’re glad at this point about what has happened there. We haven’t had any serious problems since they’ve been open,” Pike said. “We feel like they’ve been responsible.”
Steps Recovery Center has received very few complaints since it opened, Campbell said.
“In fact, most of the neighbors have come back and apologized or said, ‘Yeah, it’s nothing like we imagined it would be,’” Campbell said. “There’s little-to-no impact. Every once in a while a neighbor will get upset about an additional car or two or traffic, but nothing like they imagined it would be.”
However, despite the facility’s and city’s points of view, an informal conversation between St. George News and seven neighboring residents, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, found some people remain unhappy with the rehab’s presence and others resigned to a position of neutrality.
Three different neighbors said they felt lied to by the city and Steps Recovery Center ownership, having been under the impression that the rehab would remain at eight beds.
“We have some valid concerns,” Nickie said. “We’ve been told, ‘It’s here, shove it.’”
Several of the neighbors’ initial concerns were still in play, such as the facility’s proximity to Bloomington Elementary School, its potential to diminish property values and its presence as a commercial entity in an otherwise entirely residential zone.
An increase in traffic surrounding the rehab has been a major point of contention for Cheek, who said he worries that the recent expansion did not take increased traffic into consideration.
Two neighbors said they occasionally hear screaming coming from the facility at night.
Almost every resident with whom St. George News spoke had a story about their or a neighbor’s home being burglarized in recent years.
At least one resident installed a home security system equipped with closed circuit cameras in response to the facility’s opening.
There was a general perception that crime had increased in the area since the rehab was established.
However, in an analysis of police reports generated within several blocks of Steps Recovery Center, St. George News could not corroborate this perception.
Reports relating to criminal activity were examined in the year before the rehab opened and in the years following.
- 2013: 14 reports in the year preceding its opening.
- 2014: 8 reports in the first year of its operation.
- 2015: 19 reports in the second year of operation.
- 2016: 10 reports in the third year of operation.
- Average: 12.3 reports per year since it opened, versus 14 reports in the year before it opened.
There did not appear to be an increase in overall theft or burglaries either, with six reported in 2013 and an average of 4.6 per year in the three years since the rehab opened.
One neighbor who said they were initially against it said they have since come around to appreciate the facility, citing friendly, helpful staff and free landscaping assistance.
Yet another neighbor said they did not buy into the neighborhood fervor from the beginning and remained mostly neutral on the topic, saying the facility has been transparent and has caused no trouble in their view.
“When there’s a situation where maybe no one’s getting exactly what they wanted, maybe that’s a fair deal,” Pike said.
He said the city’s hands have been somewhat tied as they attempt to make the situation as fair as possible for the neighborhood’s residents and the business interests of Steps Recovery Center.
“The city is a creature of the state, and we will obey the law and act accordingly when it comes to things like this and we’ll do our best as we do so to work with neighbors and business to make sure everyone’s working together and that we’re having success.”
Federal reach, possible compromise
A common theme among the complaints of neighbors was annoyance at the thought of a federal provision superseding local input on zoning.
“I’ve worked with communities that had drug and alcohol addiction,” Nickie said, “but you don’t use the Americans with Disabilities Act to shove it down our throats.”
While every neighbor expressed their favor for people seeking treatment, a “not in my backyard” sentiment was present.
At least one federal official appears to have taken the residents’ complaints to heart. Over three years ago, U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart attended a town hall in St. George in which citizens arrived en masse to address this issue.
“This was a real issue for several communities in my district, particularly St. George,” Stewart said in an interview with St. George News. “What it was, is did a local community have the right to regulate home ownership in their community … some companies were coming in and buying up three or four, five homes in a row and filling them with these group homes.”
Stewart has worked actively with other federal lawmakers on legislation regarding the regulation of treatment centers in recent years.
“We want to support group homes. We know that there’s a role for them and that they can help people,” Stewart said. “At the same time, communities should be able to have some say in where they’re located and how they’re regulated.”
Such federal guidelines prohibit the gathering of individuals seeking treatment for mental health issues such as addiction from being denied operation in residential settings.
“The problem was the Department of Justice and Housing and Urban Development through such tools as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Fair Housing Act – they were making it impossible for local communities and towns to make those kinds of decisions,” Stewart said.
“We actually had legislation we thought would have to address it,” the congressman said, “but we haven’t had to introduce that legislation because instead we were able work with the DOJ and HUD and give them direction from myself and other members of congress saying, ‘Look, work with these local communities, don’t interpret the Americans with Disabilities Act in such a way that you wouldn’t allow St. George or any other town to have some say in it.’”
Stewart said he has made major strides in working with the Justice Department to implement such guidelines.
“Their guidance makes it clear the zoning and land use are inherently local decisions,” Stewart said, “and I’m quoting them on that: ‘Zoning and land use are inherently local decisions.’”
“That’s a huge step forward instead of saying these decisions are made in Washington, D.C., by someone interpreting ADA,” he said, “Let those decisions be made by those who are most impacted by it – which of course is the local community.”
Although the new guidelines are unlikely to work retroactively, they may work to eliminate the precedent of future rehab centers being established in neighborhoods without local input.
“Some communities have let them in,” Stewart said, “and of course they want to regulate them and I don’t think they want every other home to be a group home, but they’ve been willing to say, ‘Look, here’s an area or a neighborhood that this fits in, this is something that we can support, then let’s go ahead and approve it.’”
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.