West Chester residents turned out to the regularly scheduled board of trustees meeting Tuesday, July 26, 2016 to voice their opposition to a proposed drug rehabilitation center.

Growing heroin epidemic prompts West Chester zoning fight

Owner says treatment facility should be approved; many residents say plan is not safe.

Most jurisdictions in Butler County have restrictions in place for the location of drug rehabs and other medical facilities that deal with mental health issues, as does West Chester.

For months now residents and a Mason doctor and his supporters have flocked to trustee meetings to be heard on the proposed Professional Psychiatric Services move into the old West Chester nursing home on Ohio 42. At times the talk has turned nasty.

The land the nursing home sits on is zoned B-2 with a medical facility use specified, so Dr. Muhamed Aziz says his facility should be allowed.

Aziz this month verbally attacked Township Administrator Judi Boyko. She has been working with her staff and law director, researching the impact of facilities like these on the community while an eight-month moratorium has been in place.

“The reality is Miss Boyko doesn’t vote on decisions, but she manufactures them by spreading the bread crumbs and leading the trustees wherever she wants and desires,” Aziz told the trustees. “She is psychologically hijacking your decisions.”

Township spokeswomen Barb Wilson said they already regulate treatment facilities, but they wanted to study the different types of addiction services, since the need is for the services is growing rapidly with the heroin epidemic.

The township zoning “permits hospitals and medical centers in office districts and business districts, Methadone and similar high-volume drug treatment centers are permitted as conditional uses only in an overlay district established on State Route 747 in 2011,” Wilson said.

Aziz accused Boyko of trying to do what the village of Silverton — he has a lawsuit going against that town in Hamilton County Common Pleas and has threatened legal action against West Chester— has done: restrict his development by disallowing inpatient care.

Boyko said the Silverton situation has only been one component in West Chester Twp.’s research.

“I don’t mean to show any disrespect,” she said in response to Aziz. “This conspiracy theory I think is clouded with potentially interpreting limited information and not having all of the information.”

Representatives from the Pisgah Youth Organization and residents who have shown up religiously every meeting say they are not opposed to drug rehab and mental health treatment facilities, but add this is the wrong location.

Karen Werling, owner of Hickory Dickory Tots, the daycare center north of the nursing home, said 3,000 Lakota school students are in the immediate area, and many of them are walkers to and from school who would be exposed to drug addicts and to people visiting them in the proposed inpatient rehab.

Werling said rehab centers are necessary, “… just not in the middle of our community where we are serving so many young children,” she said. “Birds of a feather can sometimes flock together, so not only do you have the inpatient people, but you have all the people coming in to visit with those people.”

This situation couldn’t happen in Hamilton since the city a year ago instituted new zoning regulations that require a conditional use — something that needs planning commission and city council approval — and they can only be located in industrial areas. Some facilities — such as Sojourner’s residential treatment center for women, tucked up the hill from the developmental disabilities center and virtually a stone’s throw from Garfield Middle School — were grandfathered, but that location would now not be allowed anymore.

“They are conditional uses in the industrial district, so if someone wanted to establish one, they would have to submit plans to the city and it would have to go through the conditional use process,” the city’s senior planner John Creech said. “So the planning commission would hold a hearing and then would make a recommendation to city council, and they would have the ultimate decision to approve or not approve it.”

Treatment centers are treated as conditional uses in Middletown as well, and they are regulated as a type of group home. City Planner Ashley Combs said these facilities can treat no more than 16 people, they must have all the proper licensing and certification and cannot be within 500 feet of another like facility.

As a conditional use, she said the planning commission and ultimately city council can require things like fencing, landscape screening, setbacks and “any other reasonable requirements which in the opinion of the commission will provide adequate safeguards to ensure that the development will not be detrimental to adjacent properties or the surrounding district,” Combs said.

A couple of jurisdictions — Fairfield and Monroe — are in the process of updating their zoning codes and are specifically looking into this issue. Oxford treats the facilities as conditional uses, Liberty and Ross townships and Trenton have no specific restrictions.

“The planning commission has reviewed, as recently as June 8, the definition of clinic and the areas of the city in which they are permitted,” Fairfield Development Services Director Tim Bachman said. “The planning commission has asked for a few changes to the zoning districts to modify permitted use to conditional use in all zoning districts except where the hospital is located.”

The main issue residents and the youth organization have is safety. Gene Drozd, treasurer of PYO, has a petition with 850 signatures from West Chester residents and others who come to the ball fields, who oppose the treatment center there. He gave an example of a horrible situation that could scar the kids for life, something that can be avoided if the facility is put somewhere else in the township, away from children.

“I don’t know who is going to be admitted to that place and who isn’t, but I think common sense would tell you if someone is going to be admitted to a psych place, it very well could be someone that wants to take their own life,” he said. “Now that could happen and they want to get out of there, is it possible they would do that right in the parking lot? Is it possible in the PYO parking lot? Is it possible they would throw themselves right in front of a car on 42? It’s all bad news.”

The parents are also worried that unstable patients who might be there would be dangerous. Kimball Strickland, CEO of Butler Behavioral Health Services, said these parents have every right to feel frightened for their children, but there is no scientific data that shows people with mental illness are more prone to violence.

“Statistics show that they are no more dangerous than are the people in the normal population, in fact as far as the seriously mentally ill goes, the incidents of crime is lower than the general population. So the stereotypical, ‘if they are mentally ill they are going to be dangerous,’ presents a problem because that’s just totally false.”

Detailed plans for the treatment facility have been sketchy, and despite several attempts by this newspaper, Aziz could not be reached for comment. But it appears the facility will not be locked down. Strickland said the critical factor is going to be how the center is run.

Sherry Harbin, business and operations manager for PPS, noted 60 percent of the services would be outpatient, research and pharmacy, and 40 percent would be residential services for mental health and substance abuse. A letter PPS sent the township indicates there will be 26 beds for psychiatric clients and up to 42 beds for drug and alcohol treatment, and the average stay would be four weeks.

Harbin told the trustees recently they could win a petition drive contest against the PYO with all of their loyal and satisfied clients and families.

“If it’s a competition between PPS and the PYO, obtaining a higher number of petitioners, we can very easily obtain thousands of signatures and out-number them,” she said. “However, due to patient privacy and limits of confidentiality, we have to decline being a part of this competition.”

Scott Gehring, CEO of Sojourner Recovery Services, agreed with Strickland that how the facility will be run is crucial. While some concerned residents also believe recovering drug addicts can be violent, he said that is not the case.

“In general, the population you have in a rehab facility, the people that are getting treatment, are not the ones to be concerned about, because they are the ones that are actively and consciously making an effort to change their lives and get their lives back,” he said. “It’s the people in your neighborhood that you don’t know are using or you don’t know have mental health issues that you should be concerned about.”

The moratorium, which was put on April 12, could be lifted in a couple weeks when Boyko reports the findings of their study to the trustees. Trustee Lee Wong, who voted for the moratorium but has now done an about-face, wants it lifted immediately. PPS apparently needs to vacate its Mason location in the Fall.

“He’s been paying mortgage for this property he bought, and he can’t do anything about it. He is paying property taxes, mortgage,” Wong said. “I think we should lift the moratorium, let’s get it going… I don’t think it’s right, the timing is not right. I don’t think it is fair, it is not right.”