Neighbors oppose upscale rehab facility in south Augusta

 

Esther Stembridge faced her own problems with drugs and alcohol but got clean in 1986 before her children were born. She sees the need for treatment facilities like the upscale one being proposed off Bennock Mill Road in south Augusta where she lives but that doesn’t mean she won’t stop fighting to keep it out.

“We just don’t want it on our neighborhood,” Stembridge said. “We just don’t want it in our backyard.”

After more than an hour of lobbing questions at proponents for the Georgia Recovery Center for Impaired Professionals during a hearing Monday of the Augusta Planning Commission, many of her neighbors did not sound convinced that the residential treatment center would not be a potential danger and disruption to their quiet, rural area. The hearing was required by Georgia law and the actual zoning hearing cannot take place for at least six months.

Many who packed the Augusta Commission chamber were among the more than 300 who had signed a petition opposing a “halfway house” there and Augusta attorney Pat Rice took umbrage at that.

“It is not, it is not, a halfway house,” he proclaimed. ”It is not part of the criminal justice system. There are no criminals in this program.”

It will be geared to treating physicians, lawyers and other professionals who have drug and alcohol problems and who can afford the treatment, said CEO Monica Demitor. That will run $90,000-$120,000 a month, with more for some extra amenities, she said. People at the facility will already have gone through detoxification before they get to the center for the next phase of their recovery, which could be 60-90 days, Rice said.

“Nobody at the facility will be an active user,” he said. The program will be based on the successful Florida Recovery Center founded by Dr. Mark Gold in association with the University of Florida where he is chair of psychiatry. Treatment for physicians in programs like this have been highly successful - in one five-year study 80 percent had returned to work drug-free, he said.

“I do think that treatment really works,” Gold said. The Florida Recovery Center - with a similar professional patient population - is very close to campus and in a much more densely populated neighborhood, he said.

“The neighbors I believe have been happy,” Gold said. “The community has been happy” with the situation there. The initial patient population would be around 14 and over five years would build up to about 50 at a time, Rice said. There could be up to 75 full-time jobs and the project could have an economic impact of $34 million a year, the proponents said.

Like the Florida center, the proposed one in Augusta would be done in cooperation with Georgia Regents University but no agreement has been signed yet, officials said. Georgia Regents Medical Center would provide medical services for the residents and eventually two psychiatry residents and a psychology resident would be at the facility full-time, said Dr. Joe Ricci, administrative director for behavioral health for Georgia Regents Health System. A year-long fellowship in addiction treatment, something that does not exist currently in Georgia, would also be part of the center’s treatment, which will also include research, he said.

“There is going to be a very strong training component and also a research component,” Ricci said. That affiliation with cutting-edge, evidence-based treatment is a strength of the Florida center and will be a strength of the Georgia center, which will attract patients nationally and internationally, he said.

But that did not dissuade the fears of many neighbors, who envisioned people wandering away from the facilities and posing a danger to their children and elderly neighbors. That’s not been an issue at other professional treatment programs, said Tina Black, vice president of operations for Georgia Professional Recovery.

“These people have an investment in getting better,” she said. “They’re not interested in wandering the woods.”

Afterward, Rice approached Stembridge about getting together with the neighbors and clearing the air. Many are vowing to fight it when it comes back up again.

“It’s in our neighborhood with our children,” Crystal Seago said afterward.

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