A proposed upscale rehab facility for professionals once fiercely protested by neighbors in south Augusta sailed through the Augusta Planning Commission on Monday without a single dissent.
The panel unanimously passed a resolution affirming that a residential treatment facility on the 178-acre site off Bennock Mill Road was consistent with its Heavy Industry zoning. No one spoke in opposition to the request.
When a public hearing was held in August, scores of residents turned out to ask questions and more than 300 signed a petition opposing the move. A lot of that was because a notice of the hearing contained the phrase “halfway house,” which the project was never intended to be, said Patrick Rice, the attorney representing landowner Clay Boardman.
“They thought this would be a halfway house for hardened criminals, people that are in the penal system,” he said.
The project’s proponents were able to assure residents that it would be the last stage of addiction treatment for professionals such as physicians and that there would be no affiliation with the state or federal prison system, Rice said. Backers also did a traffic study that found it would “have no significant impact” on traffic in the area or the infrastructure, he said.
The project was able to win over the neighbors “once we explained that was not the case, and explained that we would maintain the tranquility of the neighborhood,” Rice said.
Because the facility is set well back from the road with a heavily wooded area in between, he doubted the neighbors will even see the patients there.
But it will still have a big impact on Augusta, and also on treatment nationally and possibly worldwide, Rice said.
“This is going to be the Betty Ford Center of the East Coast,” he said. “We think this is going to be a tremendous asset for the city of Augusta. It’s going to have a large economic impact on the city of Augusta.”
A previous presentation estimated that it would mean about $34 million to the Augusta economy.
The next step is closing on the property and getting the required state-issued license to operate, but a Certificate of Need should not be required, said Tina Black, the vice president of operations for parent company Rivermend Health.
There are some minor renovations that are still needed but “best-case scenario would be 60 to 90 days” for the facility to be ready to accept patients, she said. It will be called Bluff Plantation, Black said.
Georgia Regents University will provide an academic affiliation for the center’s medical director and an interview should take place within two weeks, said Joe Ricci, the administrative director for behavioral health for Georgia Regents Medical Center.
The center will provide two general psychiatry residents slots along with an addiction studies fellowship slot, one of only a handful in the country, he said. Outside of a few rotations, the new treatment center will offer GRU residents something they have not had before, Ricci said.
“We’ll be able to provide far superior addiction treatment experiences to our general psychiatry residents, and in addition to that we’ll have advanced training that has not been available in the past near here,” he said.
Having that academic affiliation should also raise the level of treatment at the center, Ricci said.
“There is going to be an increasing demand for not just intensive addiction treatment but in particular evidence-based treatment,” he said.
That treatment will be enhanced by the setting, Black said.
“It is a lovely plantation, a great space for the type of work we do,” she said. “It is a very warm and serene environment.”