Opponents of a Florida-based company’s controversial proposal to open a drug and alcohol detoxification center off Federal City Road took center stage during the Lawrence Township Zoning Board meeting held Wednesday evening (May 11).
It marked the first time that opponents were given the opportunity to freely share their opinions about Sunrise Detox’s plan. During the previous six hearings held since November, members of the public were limited to asking direct questions in response to testimony presented by Sunrise representatives, property owner John Simone and their expert witnesses.
Three opponents spoke during Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted over three hours, and an additional hearing has been scheduled for May 25 to accommodate more comment from at least nine other members of the public.
The 17,209-square-foot building off Federal City Road that Sunrise hopes to use for its proposed facility sits at the entrance to the Traditions at Federal Point adult community and directly behind the homes in another development that includes Frederick Court and Karena Lane.
Many residents who believe that such a facility should not be located so close to residential neighborhoods have been vocal critics of the proposal and have lobbied the zoning board to deny Sunrise’s proposal.
A land-use variance must be issued by the zoning board before Simone can legally lease the building to Sunrise for use as a short-term medical center.
Much of the debate Wednesday night focused on buffers. In his testimony for Sunrise, licensed professional planner Michael Mueller said the buffers already in place are adequate.
“I think it’s important to reflect on what a buffer is,” Mueller said. “I don’t believe there are any adverse impacts or nuisances to buffer on this site.”
Mueller also noted that a has now been removed from the Sunrise’s plan. During previous meetings, residents voiced multiple concerns about the 600-square-foot deck. Instead of occupying only part of the building, Mueller said, Sunrise now wants to use all of space in the building owned by Simone – an addition of about 5,000 square feet.
Zoning board members had several questions about that change, particularly about the impact of the facility having more space for its operations.
But Mueller said that the removal of the deck will have no real effect on the facility’s operations. Sunrise is “not increasing staff levels, not increasing patient levels,” he said. “There wouldn’t be any more beds. The patient level would stay the same.”
However, Mueller said he could not definitively say what that additional space would be used for yet, as the site plans are still fluid.
Part of that fluidity, Simone testified, is the result of the many months that Sunrise’s application has been stalled before the Zoning Board.
“To this day we have not gone any further with that design because of the zoning issues,” Simone said.
Nearby resident William Eggert spoke out about his fears that the current buffers on the property were inadequate and that patients could possibly leave the facility to commit crimes in the nearby neighborhoods.
“I’ve lived with one [addict],” he said. “I can’t imagine living with 38.” The Sunrise facility, as proposed, would have 38 beds for patients.
Eggert also brought up concerns about Simone himself and whether or not Simone was omitting things on the application he submitted to the zoning board, such as his political campaign contributions. Eggert produced documents from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission that suggested Simone may have neglected to report four contributions. The board confirmed that, but found 62 other contributions that Simone had reported.
When Eggert proceeded to call the zoning board hearings a “dog-and-pony show,” board Chairman Peter Kremer said he had “gone too far.”
“Two thirds of the last seven months have been for public questions,” Kremer said. “So please don’t come here and say you haven’t been able to speak your mind.”
Eggert spent about a minute talking about the buffer issue, Kremer said, but “the rest of it was pretty much just this innuendo and accusation.”
Also speaking against Sunrise’s proposal was Laura Weber, unit secretary for Princeton House, a detoxification and medical facility in Princeton Township. She was not speaking on behalf of Princeton House, but described what she has seen in her four-and-a-half years working there.
“We always have beds available,” she said, countering Sunrise’s claim that there is a need for additional detoxification services in the area. “There has never been a time when I’ve been there that it’s been completely full.”
Weber, whose brother lives in Lawrence close to the proposed Sunrise site, said she did not see a need for another similar facility so close to Princeton House.
But there were some who turned out Wednesday to support Sunrise’s plan.
Among them was Paul Ressler, who has been nominated and is waiting to be confirmed as a member of the Governor’s Council Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse. He has also volunteered for several drug and alcohol treatment facilities. In his mind, “there are too few of them.”
Ressler acknowledged the concerns of the residents, but said that the Sunrise facility could improve and even save many lives.
“My son became an addict and died last year of an overdose,” he said. “If you looked at [my family] you’d never guess that we had an addict in our family.”
He called the facility an “opportunity for everyone” and asked Lawrence residents to “dig down deep and try to understand how this facility would save many, many lives.”
“I know a lot of people say, ‘I don’t care. It’s not my problem,’ but it may be one day.”
The next hearing – the eighth on the issue – will be held at 7:30 p.m. on May 25 at the Lawrence Township Municipal Building.
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