Wilmington City Council carries over consideration of controversial 200-bed group home

More than 225 people attended the Wilmington City Council's Jan. 8 meeting, with the crowd...
More than 225 people attended the Wilmington City Council's Jan. 8 meeting, with the crowd spilling out into the hall (WECT).
Published: Jan. 9, 2019 at 12:55 AM EST
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - After more than five hours of debate and discussion, there is still no final decision on a request for a special use permit for a 200-bed group home facility on Medical Center Drive.

Wilmington City Council voted to once again carry over discussion of the Healing Place — the fourth continuance of the issue since it passed the Wilmington Planning Commission in August.

The debate had two clearly-cut sides — those who believe the facility is a critically-needed answer to the opioid crisis, and those who think the facility would pose a serious risk to the neighboring properties.

When considering a special use permit, the council holds a quasi-judicial hearing to consider the evidence. The law only allows for facts to be considered by the council, and those facts should be used to either support or detract from the required “Four findings of fact” used to measure the muster of a request.

This proved significant when more than two dozen people signed up to speak during the public hearing, so many that the city clerk had to swear-in the speakers in shifts.

The project, a partnership between New Hanover County and Trillium Health Resources, would provide male patients with a stair-step substance abuse recovery program along with a residency component. Those with substance abuse addiction would be able to check themselves in, or be referred by law enforcement or medical first responders.

Within the lot at 1000 Medical Center Drive, would be multiple buildings, with resources for those participating in the program, including dining facilities and a community room where other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, could meet.

The current zoning of the location already allows for substance abuse treatment during the day, but the county and Trillium are seeking a special use permit to allow for the residency aspect.

New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet briefly re-introduced the plans for the site, explaining the county and Trillium are building the facility, and a nonprofit organization will run it.

“It is a peer-led, residential, evidence-based treatment solution that’s been identified as highly-effective in addressing the opioid addiction in particular,” Coudriet said.

The county then introduced a slate of subject matter experts.

The first was District Attorney Ben David, who said he not only supports the county’s efforts, but thinks the facility will provide a life-saving resource for the area.

“I think we need to understand that the place is here in Wilmington, and the time for this is now,” David said.

County representatives explained that since the last meeting, they had made changes to the plan to try to assuage the concerns of the closest neighbors.

Some of those changes include adding a provision that registered sex offenders will not be allowed at the facility, that any ambulances or emergency vehicles entering the facility after hours will muffle their sirens, and pedestrian travel along Physicians Drive will be discouraged.

County Commissioner Rob Zapple also spoke in favor of the proposal.

“I am convinced the Healing Place is the right program with an exceptional success rate," Zapple said. "The funding is in place, the partnership and the land are in place. It is the right location for the program to succeed, and the time is now to bring this critical program to our community.”

One of the most vocal opponents to the proposal is the staff of Lower Cape Fear Hospice, the direct neighbor to the proposed site.

Gwen Whitley, president and CEO of LCFH, along with several other representatives for the center spoke about their concerns with the proposed facility, particularly the security risks they associate with the site.

LCFH has 25 points of entry, Whitley explained, and it is well-known that patients who are in end of life care are often prescribed opioids and other controlled substances.

Whitley and attorneys for several of those opposed said the proximity of the facility to the hospice center would provide “temptation” for those at risk of relapsing into addiction.

Additionally, people representing several other medical facilities and one daycare facility were present at the meeting, saying they fear that because there would be “limited” staffing at the facility overnight, there would be nothing stopping men from leaving the facility and walking through the area.

There were also several questions raised about the nature of the curriculum the program and the facility would provide.

For the fourth time in as many months, the council voted to postpone action on the request for a special use permit, and asked Trillium and New Hanover County to again meet with LCFH and other neighbors to try and address concerns.

Mayor Bill Saffo said he wants the applicants to address the concerns about the undefined curriculum and exactly how the program would work, as well as the idea of increasing the number of staff members — not hiring security guards — to address the safety need.

Council Member Kevin O’Grady had previously moved to deny the request, saying that he thinks the county and Trillium have “failed” to prove the findings of fact, and that he was “disappointed” in the presentation.

On the other side, Council Member Charlie Rivenbark said he was ready to vote Tuesday night in favor of the request, saying he has never seen such a thorough presentation for this type of special use request.

The council set a date-certain for again considering the issue, continuing the public hearing over to its next meeting on Jan. 22.

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