Community rallies to block proposed drug addiction recovery center near Saluda

Published 2:25 pm Thursday, November 17, 2022

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SALUDA — Residents of a Saluda community have rallied together to fight approval of a special use permit—SUP-22-07—being sought from the Henderson County Zoning Board of Adjustment to open a residential addiction recovery center off Fork Creek Road. The center would house up to 18 adult men after they have completed medical detoxification from drugs and/or alcohol, according to Craig Halford, director and founder of First Contact Ministries, Inc., who is seeking the permit.

The property in question at 4353 Fork Creek Road, Saluda, is a 5,485 square foot, four bedroom five bath home, owned by the Linda Neufeld Trust. It is listed for sale for $1.3 million and sits on 34.52 acres. While technically it is located in Henderson County, it is closer in proximity to the city of Saluda, and the property backs up to the 20,000-acre north Saluda section of the Greenville Watershed. A sale to First Contact is pending approval of the special use permit.

Halford, who has twice unsuccessfully sought a location for the center in Henderson County, with the support of State Sen. Chuck Edwards, acquired an appropriation of $1.5 million for FY22-23 from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund for the construction of a new substance abuse treatment facility. It was later amended to allow the purchase and renovation of a building. The nonprofit received an additional $500,000 directed grant from Local Project Reserve funding within the Mental Health, Development Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services subsection of the Base, Capital and Expansion Budget. There are reporting requirements attached to both appropriations.

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Sen. Chuck Edwards has supported First Contact’s efforts to establish a substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation center in Henderson County to address the rising need for such a facility in the county. According to Edwards’ office, illicit opioid overdose deaths increased by 1,242% between 2011 and 2021 in North Carolina. Henderson County has no residential treatment facility and only one hospital inpatient facility through Pardee Hospital/UNC Health. 

Responding to questions on the senator’s behalf during a meeting at his Hendersonville office, his assistant Heather Millett said the need for such a facility has been on the senator’s radar since his election in 2016.

“Senator Edwards is honored to have been given the opportunity to support First Contact Ministries in their effort to bring a residential treatment facility to Henderson County and fill the overwhelming gap in currently provided services. The First Contact Board of Directors has a strong history of saving lives, helping families, and assisting those affected by substance abuse get back on track.”

While Saluda residents say they realize there is a need for such a facility, many feel strongly that the Fork Creek property is not the right location. More than 75 Fork Creek area residents gathered Sunday at the nearby Orchard Lake Campground to organize opposition to be presented at a hearing on the SUP on Monday, Nov. 21. Signed surveys by the group opposing the location of the center were also presented to Edwards’ office. Monday will be a continuation of the Oct. 26 hearing on the matter and is scheduled for 4 p.m. in the Hendersonville County Board of Commissioner’s meeting room, located at 1 Historic Courthouse Square in Hendersonville.

Opposition to the proposal began in September following a hearing notification posted at the entrance to the gated property. Only residents whose properties adjoin the Neufeld acreage were notified directly by letter.

Cindy Hemenway, whose home on Pace Gap Road is accessed from Fork Creek Road, is located closest to the proposed workshop location. She said she first heard about the hearing from a neighbor who saw the sign go up.

“I received that letter of notification just days before the hearing,” Hemenway said.

The sign indicated the SUP was being sought for an assisted living facility. It angered area residents to learn the true nature of the proposed use of the property. Matt Champion, Henderson County zoning administrator, explained that labels about addiction fall underneath Assisted Living in the county’s land development code. He said it would take approval by county commissioners to create new uses.

With little time to react prior to the Sept. 28 hearing, Hemenway immediately began action to organize a Concerned Citizen Group, set up a trust to pay attorney fees and hired Brian Gulden from the Van Winkle Law firm. Gulden was successful in gaining additional time for the affected residents to investigate the matter and retain the services of experts needed to evaluate the impact of the proposed use of the property on the community. A second hearing was granted and set for Oct. 26. That meeting lasted more than five hours and was continued to Nov. 21. 

While a large contingent of residents opposing the SUP, as well as First Contact supporters have attended the quasi-judicial hearings, only five gained standing to speak. Unlike a public hearing, only persons whose properties adjoin the property for which the SUP is being sought can present their case to the zoning board. Those individuals had to show they would be directly and substantially affected by the board’s decision. The burden is placed on the property owners to prove their community will be harmed.

Allison Hull, who gained standing due to her property in the Morgan Creek Community that also adjoins along Pace Gap Road, said her biggest concern is for her safety and the safety of the community. That concern, she said, outweighs the concern over loss of property values, even though she has only recently relocated from Charleston seeking a quieter lifestyle in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Brooks and Kim Wynn, who said they haven’t even unpacked all the boxes from their recent move to the Fork Creek community, have voiced extreme concern over having an addiction recovery center approved nearby. They received approval to use the name of Saluda to create a website that will be used to gather funds for legal fees for an appeal should the zoning board approve the SUP.

Additionally, Orchard Lake Campground owners Kirk and Konnie Hall, along with their daughter Hannah, all of whom gained standing to speak at the hearings because of the proximity of their two homes across from the entrance to the property in question, are rallying neighbors to join the fight against the permit. At the Sunday group meeting, residents voiced concern that while First Contact is currently only seeking special use for the one house, they could potentially expand onto the additional acreage as Halford, in his first efforts to find a location, had initially hoped to operate both a men’s and women’s recovery center.

Kirk Hall noted that without the legal action taken by the Concerned Citizens Group to get a continuance on the permit hearing, he feels it would have already been a “done deal.”

“The continuance gave us more time to prepare,” he said, urging anyone concerned about the SUP to attend the Monday hearing to show support for those who were able to gain standing to present their testimony.

Brian Stepp, a member of the Saluda Fire Department and EMS, which would be the first responders to any incident occurring at the address, said the terrain of the area is not suitable for responding to such a facility. He said public safety should be highly reviewed by the zoning board before making its decision to grant the SUP.

Halford has said there are no plans to do major renovations to the house except for adding a bathroom and rebuilding a workshop on an existing cement slab. The three bedrooms upstairs, he said, would be equipped to house six men to a room and the fourth bedroom would house 24-hour staffing. While Halford has admitted he and First Contact have no previous experience operating a recovery center, he said the Christian-based organization, that has provided referral services for about a decade, would partner with Summit Wellness for professional counseling.