The Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday night (June 22) decided not to support a Florida-based company’s proposal to open a 38-bed in-patient drug and alcohol detoxification center on Federal City Road, adjacent to residential neighborhoods.
The board voted 4-2 to reject a use variance application filed by the company, Sunrise Detox, and John Simone, owner of the 17,209-square-foot building that Sunrise had hoped to use.
The building at 100 Federal City Rd. 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. The variance was needed in order for Simone to legally lease the building to Sunrise for use as a short-term medical center.
Sunrise’s controversial proposal to open a facility in Lawrence Township had been the focus of nine exhausting and often-heated zoning board hearings, dating back to November, that featured testimony from supporters of the plan – who claimed that a need exists in the area for detoxification services – and those vehemently opposed to the idea, including nearby residents who said they feared for their safety and believed such a facility should not be located so close to residential neighborhoods.
Wednesday night marked the first time zoning board members were able to openly deliberate on the matter. No public comment or testimony was heard.
“The proposed use is not inherently beneficial,” concluded Peter Kremer, zoning board chair.
For Kremer, the matter was entirely a legal one. “We cannot make an emotional decision here,” he said. “It’s the legal issues that will carry the day.”
The key issue for Kremer and other board members seemed to be the legal definition of “inherently beneficial” and how that definition applies to the kind of facility Sunrise wants to open in Lawrence. Under the law, facilities deemed to be “inherently beneficial” to the community are exempt from many municipal land use restrictions.
Kremer argued that the proposed Sunrise facility is not inherently beneficial in so far as it would not operate as a non-profit or charity, and would not accept Medicare and Medicaid applicants.
Board Vice Chair Stephen Brame agreed. “I would be opposed to finding that an inherently beneficial use occurred” at Sunrise. “An inherently beneficial use is to be available to all.”
However, two board members – Leona Maffei and Sam Pangaldi – did see Sunrise’s center as an inherently beneficial facility. Maffei and Pangaldi were the only board members who voted against the motion to reject the use variance application.
“Anybody that is addicted that can’t get help and needs somewhere to go - [Sunrise] is inherently beneficial,” Maffei said. She pointed out that Sunrise officials testified that they are willing to lower their fees in some cases and offer scholarships.
“I just think somebody that needs help, the town should offer help,” Pangaldi said. “There’s a lot of drug and alcohol addictions going on out there. There’s a lot of people that need help.”
But Maffei and Pangaldi were outnumbered by board members opposed to the variance. In addition to the debate over “inherently beneficial,” most board members also did not see Simone’s property on Federal City Road as “particularly suited” to a detox center, or the Sunrise facility as one that “promotes the general welfare.”
“Its commercial kitchen and laundry facility are much too intense for a facility that is going to be so close to a residential area,” board member Cathleen Lewis said. “I don’t see that having a variance is in any way beneficial to the community as a whole.”
Board member Bruce Kmosko agreed. He pointed out that in 2004 a change was made to municipal ordinances to specially prohibit new 24-hour facilities. “To me here it’s pretty much crystal clear that the legislative intent is not to permit this.”
Brame moved and Kmosko seconded the motion to reject the use variance application. After the members announced their vote, applause erupted in the municipal building.
Outside, the residents who had spent months objecting to the application lingered after the meeting.
Marvin Van Hise, a Lawrence Township resident who organized much of the opposition to the center, praised the board’s decision.
“I think as a matter of law it’s the absolute right decision,” he said. “I’m more than a little happy about the result.”
While the board called the testimony given by some opponents fearful and speculative, Van Hise said there “really was no speculation. In my opinion the fact is that there was insufficient proof offered by the applicant for granting the variance.”
Charles Lavine, a board member who recused himself so he could speak publicly in opposition to Sunrise’s proposal, was also pleased with the board’s decision. He said the most amazing thing about the whole situation was the way the community came out and spoke up.
“Never faltered. Never wavered,” he said. “We knew we were right from day one.”