Detox center plans causing stir in city

WEIRTON – Weirton officials are looking for additional information before making a decision on a new detox center proposed for the city.

A 12-bed facility being planned for 243 American Way, near Kwik King and Weirton Medical Center, has been described as a future “crisis stabilization unit/detox center for substance abuse.”

The issue was discussed with the Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday.

Rod Rosnick, chief code official, said the original application stated the facility would be classified a “group home,” but the state’s definitions and classifications do not match up to the city’s Unified Development Ordinance definitions.

David Hildreth, deputy director of the West Virginia Real Estate Division, requested a use determination and/or conditional use permit approval for the detox center, which has already been constructed.

“The state of West Virginia has built a number of these over the last 10 years. We’ve always referred to them as group homes, and they’ve always been accepted as such,” Hildreth said.

“Mr. Pryor (of Billy Pryor General Contracting) had applied for a group home on August 15, 2013. That application was reviewed and approved for construction in November of 2013 … The city of Weirton was advised in March 2014 that the property wasn’t going to be used as a group home and was going to be a ‘drug rehab’ operated by Healthways,” Rosnick said. “I don’t believe their use qualifies as a group home under the city of Weirton’s definition.”

He added that Healthways sent a “detailed” description of the facility’s intended use and that he researched the U.D.O. in an effort to find a definition to match, but none of the terms in the U.D.O “specifically hit” what was being proposed.

“‘Halfway house,’ ‘group home’ and ‘medical clinic’ are terms that all have aspects of what they are proposing, but none of them actually fit the description,” Rosnick said. “That’s the board’s first and primary function: to decide what definition that use qualifies under… Permit issues go after that.”

Kimberly Walsh, deputy commissioner of West Virginia’s Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, and Terry Stemple, chief executive officer of Healthways, were also present at the meeting. Walsh provided an outline of the medically supervised services that would be provided at the site and governed by the Bureau of Medical Services under the Department of Health and Human Resources.

“Individuals are supervised 24/7 with very limited abilities to have any kind of exit or outside engagement because they’re in crisis and being monitored during that time,” Walsh said. “The reason we are involved is simply to develop the structure. The Brooke-Hancock area had no such service, so we opted to prioritize this as a result of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse and work that they’ve done in the past few years… We’re bringing a sought-after service that was recommended by your local task forces to your area.”

The facility would be voluntary for patients seeking treatment. Methadone would not be offered as treatment there, but Suboxone would be used to treat heroin addiction, Walsh said. She added that “locking people in” is not allowed at the center under state provisions, but a time-release system on doors would be in use, alerting staff whenever a patient enters or exits.

Board member Mike Simon and Chairman Vince Azzarello, who participated in the meeting via speaker phone, both said that they would need more information in order to reach a decision.

“I’m well aware that we need the facility in this area. My feeling is wondering about the appropriateness of the location,” commented Robert Campbell, board member.

“I think that the police department would attest that we run our facilities very safely and cautiously. With the Weirton Medical Center closing their inpatient unit a few years ago, it really became a heightened need. From the very beginning, we made it clear that it was a detox unit, a crisis unit. We wanted to be located close to Weirton Medical Center so people we were hiring wouldn’t have to drive a distance to get to us. We want the community to embrace our service. We need their support,” Stemple said.

Peg Moss, director of adult medical services with the Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, said she has nearly 30 years of experience running similar facilities.

“The police never came to our door with any complaints. No issues there at all,” she said.

Gary Grisko spoke on behalf of Sellitti Properties, owners of the Woodbridge Apartments near the site.

“Most of our rental people there are elderly people or young people interning at the hospital. The first thing I’m asked when I show an apartment is ‘How safe is this area?’ If this facility cannot contain these people, if they are free to leave, where are they going to go at 3 o’clock in the morning? That’s our biggest concern,” he said.

Ed Bowman, former state senator, said that in his experience, facilities of this nature always provoke a negative reaction from residents based on fear.

“There needs to be some public relations work done here so that you can comfort the people in those areas about these fears… We just need to back up for a moment and have some dialogue between the agencies in Charleston and our city council. There needs to be further dialogue, education, communication if this is really going to come to be,” Bowman commented.

Corey Lauck spoke on behalf of Coen Oil Company, owners of the Kwik King located next to the site.

“First and foremost we would like to see anyone get help for the problems they may have. We do have a safety concern for our employees, customers and the residents. We are concerned with the ease with which they could leave,” he said.

John Martich, a resident of Angeline Estates, said he was representing about 15 neighbors who echoed the same concerns.

“The type of people who will be using this facility – not to cast aspersions on anyone, but let’s all use a little bit of common sense,” he said. “There’s no question we need some intervention in this area. I totally support the concept. I am vehemently opposed to placing it in the proposed area. I look at downtown Weirton and see many empty buildings. Would it not be fiscally sound for the state to renovate some of those buildings as opposed to building a completely new structure for something like this?”

Martich also suggested that the board hold meetings in the evening so that more people could attend.

“I’m here today to represent my constituents who have called me and expressed concern. I am no way qualified to speak as to the medical and psychiatric treatment of addicts. I am qualified though to protect the property and investments and way of life of my constituents,” Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh weighed in. “I think I have to lean on the side of caution here with Senator Bowman and say that we need to get the parties together and find out what’s really going on here. Right now, I’m kind of confused as to what this is going to be.”

Simon asked Walsh whether the state “has a horse in the race” regarding the site.

“No we don’t,” she responded. “We just want the service. We share in the desire to build this service capacity somewhere in your area.”

Stemple said Healthways would be open to considering other locations, though the building has already been finished by Pryor.

“The funding has already been let out on this location. Mr. Pryor has a building. I feel very bad about that, because he has a building now that he specifically built for this purpose,” Stemple observed.

Mayor George J. Kondik said that he agreed with Bowman and Marsh.

“We do have a drug problem in our city… Is this the answer? Is this what we need to do?” he asked. “Do we need it downtown where all the drug users are supposedly? I’m going to ask you to take another month to decide on that, and I do like the idea of having an open meeting in the evening so everyone can voice their opinion.”

Ward 4 Councilman George Ash Sr., disagreed with Kondik’s summation.

“I represent Ward 4, not downtown, Ward 4. I am very offended by what he said about all the drugs downtown. If you look at the newspapers and television you’ll see it’s everywhere through Weirton and every place,” Ash said.

Kondik apologized, but asserted that most drug arrests in Weirton happen downtown.

“I would just submit to you or reassert that none of us are immune from either having a psychiatric illness or having ourselves or someone in our families end up addicted and in need. It is so important that we recognize that… Not treating folks, not providing service and not providing the access in your local communities really places your communities more at risk than doing otherwise,” Walsh commented.

Zoning board officials must determine how to classify the facility before it becomes clear whether it will be permitted and whether additional security restrictions will be applicable. They voted unanimously to table the discussion until next month, citing a need for more information.