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Planning and Zoning Commission just says no to rezoning request to allow drug rehab center

The Talladega Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously rejected a request to rezone the former Timber Ridge Golf Course to allow for a drug rehabilitation center to open there.

According to City Planner Robert Buyher, the request likely will come before the Talladega City Council next, where the final decision will be made. The commission’s recommendation to the council is just that, a recommendation, and is not binding.

Attorney Reagan Rumsey and Chase Lackey, the director of New Beginnings Recovery, asked the commission to recommend changing the zoning on the property from I1 (formerly M1, industrial zoning) to IP (institutional park).

The request was strongly opposed by neighboring property owners, including the Presbyterian Home for Children, Alabama Institutes for Deaf and Blind, and First Freewill Baptist Church.

Rumsey said that residential drug rehabilitation programs such as New Beginnings play a vital role in the justice system, particularly in counties like Talladega that lack a drug court.

“I’ve been practicing criminal law for 10 years, and unfortunately I know of very few cases where someone goes to prison for a drug problem and comes out better,” he said.

Council President Betty Spratlin serves on the commission because of her office, and she raised the question of a resident of New Beginnings existing facility on Plant Road where one resident was stabbed to death by another during a group therapy session.

Rumsey and Lackey said this was an isolated incident, and that the existing facility had been well received by their neighbors.

Lackey, who is a graduate of the program himself, said New Beginnings provides a professional, structured environment to address the physical, mental and spiritual needs of their clients, most of whom are referred to the program by courts in other counties. They also provide transportation, family counselling, educational opportunities and other benefits, in addition to required counseling and 12-step program attendance. All clients are required to work for outside businesses and earn taxable income, which is also largely spent in Talladega. The existing facility has 40 people in it so far, and the new facility, should it ever open, would be about the same size.

Lackey estimated the economic impact of the existing facility at $269,000 a year.

Security at the Timber Ridge facility would be provided by camera systems and a house manager. The current clubhouse, in the middle of the property, would be where the clients lived, with the rest of the golf course serving as a buffer.

Spratlin and board member Keela Brown both expressed support for the program, but expressed doubts about the location.

“I really respect what you’re trying to do, and I know there is a tremendous need for it,” Brown said. “When you purchased it, did you know the property was going to have to be rezoned? Did you know there was going to be so much opposition? I know some of that is fear based, and I really do want to help, but this is not the right place. It’s too close to schools. I’m not for it.”

Rumsey started to explain that the client involved in the stabbing had mental issues, and that generally people with mental health issues were screened out.

“That’s not the issue,” Brown said. “It’s the location, and it’s what the public wants.”

Said Spratlin: “It’s too close to Houston Elementary School, Talladega High School, the Presbyterian Home and the schools for deaf and blind. There are churches in the area. The people there will be walking to and from Wal-Mart. And it’s in my ward. I’m also against this. Chase, I admire you and people like you who have come out of addiction, but this place should be further out.”

Attorney Jake Montgomery and Presbyterian Home President Doug Marshall were the first neighboring property owners to speak against the rezoning. Montgomery is also a member of the Talladega City Board of Education, but was not acting in his capacity as a board member Thursday night.

“We were shocked and dismayed to discover that an inpatient drug rehabilitation facility for adult men opened on property adjacent to our land on Ironaton Road,” Marshall said. “We were not given the opportunity to speak on our own behalf and that of the children and all residents entrusted to our care when the facility opened earlier without proper notice to the City of Talladega and in clear violation of zoning restrictions. We are very grateful for the opportunity to come before you today to voice our strong opposition to placing such a facility at the former Timber Ridge golf course.”

“Our objections are based on two very real concerns,” he continued. “First, the safety of our children and residents, and that of our staff. Second, we believe the deed prohibits such a facility on that property.”

The Home seems to have sold the property to TImber Ridge and included restrictions on the use of the property. The restrictions did allow for institutional usage, however, so this did not seem to be as significant an issue for the board members.

“The Home has been a wonderful and proud part of Talladega for over 150 years, and we look forward to another 150 years,” Marshall concluded. “Our mission has evolved over the years, but its core component has been to provide love, care, and compassion to children. Our mission will be jeopardized if we cannot ensure a safe environment and protect the value of our property. We strongly plead for the Planning Commission to decline a change in the zoning restrictions for the former Timber Ridge facilities and land and not allow this inpatient drug rehabilitation facility for adult men to open down the street from the Presbyterian Home for Children where we live in our home of Talladega. The former Timber Ridge facilities and land is simply not the place to have individuals in drug rehabilitation near teenage girls, young boys and girls with their mothers, and young female adults residing at the Home and near the deaf, blind, deafblind, and multi-disabled at Union Village on our campus.”

AIDB President Dr. John Masica made a similar argument.

“I’m here tonight out of concern, not anger,” he said. “I want a solution for everyone, not just those who are opposed. We have all been touched by addiction, and I support the need for facilities like this. The property location is my only concern.”

Since 1858, he said, AIDB has been charged with “ensuring the safety of citizens who are most vulnerable,” much like the Presbyterian Home. The new facility is “too close to our most vulnerable. On the first day of every school year, we pledge to the parents that we will watch over their sons and daughters like they were our own. ... I encourage you to look for another location, one that we all can support.”

Robert Sanders, pastor of First Freewill Baptist Church, said he had come because members of his congregation had expressed concern.

“I agree there is a need,” he said. “But the people who are going to be going to this facility will have been ordered there by the courts. I know what addiction does to lives and families, but I also know that unless the addict wants to get better, the best program in the world won’t help. I’m concerned for safety, for putting the criminal element in our neighborhood. … I know our mayor and city manager are trying to make Talladega a place where people want to live. This won’t help.”

After Sanders, Brown made a formal motion to deny the rezoning request, which was approved unanimously. Commission Chair Marie Player summed up the discussion by saying “We want to help people who need rehabilitation, and we encourage you to find someplace. But this is not the right place.”

Also Thursday, the commission:

—Failed to approve a home occupancy permit request for a barber and cosmetologist in Dellwood. The final vote was four in favor, one against and four abstentions. The motion would have needed five votes to carry.

—Approved a home occupancy license for a custom print shop on Shocco Springs Road.

—Tabled a request from someone who was not present at the meeting.

—Approved home occupancy requests for locations on Coffee Street, South Street and Cedar Street.

—Approved a right of way to provide access to landlocked property off the 275 Bypass.