Borough leaders say public information sessions will precede zoning hearings. RCA Clinical Director Deni Carise says the need for treatment centers is significant in the area.
By Matt Skoufalos
For the time being, the proposal to bring an addictions treatment center into Haddonfield has been described entirely in the abstract.
First came the announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer that King of Prussia, PA-based real estate developer J. Brian O’Neill had bankrolled the purchase of the largest under-developed parcel of land in the borough, the Bancroft Neurohealth campus, for an undisclosed price.
O’Neill envisions the facility as one of several in a startup called Recovery Centers of America (RCA), which describes itself as “the first national branded chain of treatment centers in the U.S.”
That news beget a statement from borough leaders last week that they “believe that RCA will need, at a minimum, to seek approval for a use variance by the borough’s Zoning Board of Adjustment” to operate on the property.
Wishing to preserve the independence of that body in its decision-making process, Haddonfield commissioners have been careful about keeping their remarks on the subject to a minimum. But for a property that means so much to the borough, both in terms of planning and use, discussion on the facility is likely to be significant before RCA even comes to town.
‘There’s no solution that’s going to make everybody happy’
“At this point we’re waiting for an application from RCA,” said Haddonfield Commissioner John Moscatelli.
“They have indicated to us and in their press release that they intend to hold one or more public meetings to try to educate the Haddonfield residents on what they’re trying to do, and [to]satisfy some of the anxiety that people have before they go to the zoning board.”
Moscatelli said that none of the commissioners has yet seen a proposed schedule for any such meetings.
Although the borough history with the property has been varied, from its candidacy as an open-space preservation project to a school board purchase, Moscatelli described Bancroft Neurohealth as having been “a good neighbor for a long time.”
He added, however, that its interests in expanding the footprint of the campus on that property did not match with those of the borough planning board. RCA, in contrast, has plans “to substantially improve those facilities, but not to expand them,” Moscatelli said.
“We did run into some issues when [Bancroft] wanted to increase the intensity of the use on that property, which is why they decided to leave,” he said. “My understanding is that all RCA is asking for is a use variance, which will allow them to utilize the existing infrastructure for a different purpose.
“The footprint really won’t change,” he said.
Moscatelli also acknowledged that vehicle traffic along Hopkins Lane, which runs past the Bancroft campus, connecting the major thoroughfares of Grove Street and Kings Highway, has long been a source of contention for residents of the street. Whether a different tenant at the property would change that attitude, he couldn’t say.
“There’s no solution that’s going to make everybody happy,” Moscatelli said. “I think if RCA can demonstrate that there will be less of a neighborhood impact, then some of the neighbors might find that attractive.”
Beneficial use standard vs. conformance
Legal tradition in New Jersey has generally shown that rehabilitation centers can enjoy a privileged status in terms of zoning because they can be categorized as “an inherently beneficial use” of property.
If the zoning board upholds that status for RCA at the Bancroft property, the burden would then fall to any opponents of the project to show that such a use is detrimental to the community.
At first blush, said Haddonfield Mayor Jeffrey Kasko, the question of bringing RCA to the Bancroft property “is a use that I don’t think that anybody anticipated” and “is not in conformance with what it’s zoned for.
“Hence the need for a use variance,” Kasko said, tempering his comments with a note that he did not want to “make any sort of preconceived judgments on that use.
“I want to hear what the zoning board has to say, and that’s what’s going to make the determination,” he said.
“Is there a need for those kinds of facilities? There sure the heck is. There’s a need for nice, quality rehabilitation centers for people with substance abuse and alcohol abuse issues. That’s something that looks to be needed in our area.
“If this is going to be the right place for it, then we’ll see,” Kasko said.
RCA would operate as a for-profit business with taxable income, and the property would become a borough ratable; as used by the nonprofit Bancroft, the land currently is off the books in town. Although Kasko said generating those revenues “would be a nice plus for the borough,” he added, “I don’t think that should be one of the factors” in determining whether the use is appropriate for Haddonfield.
The mayor said that early, informal remarks to him haven’t revealed any anecdotal consensus among borough residents on the move. Rather, he is interested to hear public opinion at the upcoming RCA-hosted information sessions, and pledged to use borough resources to host such events.
“I think if there are public sessions ahead of time, a lot of people get their questions out there, they get things off their chest, [and]then you don’t go into a zoning board heading where you have tons of comment, tons of testimony, tons of commotion,” Kasko said.
‘A neighborhood treatment center’
Deni Carise, Chief Clinical Officer for RCA, described the value of an inpatient facility as providing a higher standard of care for people suffering from substance abuse addiction.
She described plans for the site as a “neighborhood treatment center where people can get treatment in their community,” and said that RCA would offer “recovery support services,” spanning onsite detoxification, inpatient and outpatient services, group support, and even spiritual services.
Carise described “intensive outpatient” treatment course as running nine hours a week up to “partial hospitalization,” which can last 30 hours a week.
“The science shows that if you keep somebody in care a minimum of 90 days, not in residential, just in care at all, you have a better likelihood that they’re going to get and remain sober,” she said.
“If they transfer from one level of care to another, you highly increase the chances that they’ll get the full dose of care that’s needed.”
Cerise said that treatment programs at RCA are “evidence-based,” “heavy on counselors,” and are “designed to meet the patient where they’re at.” She stressed that patients are in treatment at RCA facilities “from eight in the morning to eight at night,” without much downtime, and that the typical patients are commercial insurance or self-pay customers.
“These are not folks who are mandated by the criminal justice system; these are not folks who are coming in lieu of jail,” Carise said. “These are people who have homes. They’re policemen, firefighters, teachers, doctors, lawyers, people in the community.
“We don’t hold them if they don’t want to stay,” she said. “We get a black car service or call a family member. These are not folks who are going to sneak out in the middle of the night.”
In addition to various forms of subtance abuse, depression, and anxiety in America, Carise said that counseling specialists are also observing “a specific new problem of retirement-onset alcoholism,” for which RCA is also suited to provide therapy.
But principally, she and others have noted the challenges specific to heroin addiction as a mounting concern.
The heroin epidemic in New Jersey is so well known that state and local task forces have been convened on the subject, and Camden County has its own multidisciplinary panel.
Experts in law enforcement, counseling, and education all point to the purity and abundance of the drug locally, as well as the ease of access to opioid-derived painkiller prescriptions at home.
When Camden County convened its Opiate and Heroin Crisis Community Summit in Collingswood last spring, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli spoke about a need to “get beyond the old thoughts about how we treat addiction.”
Earlier this month, when the state assembly brought its budget hearings to Collingswood, advocates for addictions treatment dollars were among the most outspoken at the event. At that meeting, Alan Oberman, CEO of the John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City, said that New Jersey “is not well-equipped to handle what we’re facing right now” in terms of providing services for its residents suffering from addiction.
“Many times the clients are literally lining up on the street,” he said.
“Southern New Jersey clearly lacks the capacity to meet the demands for the overwhelming number of people who need treatment,” said Tonia Ahern of the Parent to Parent Citizens Advisory Committee from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Ahern, one of three parents presenting binders full of overdose obituaries to legislators that day, criticized “this odd division” between the access to funding afforded to facilities in the northern and southern regions of the state.
Carise said the impact of heroin abuse is heightened significantly by the accelerated timeline of an addiction that intensifies more rapidly than any substance in her experience.
“I’ve been in this field for 30 years, run studies at a national level, opened up programs in different countries, and spent about 20 years as an NIH-funded researcher,” she said.
“In 30 years, I’ve never seen a transition from somebody who is what we call ‘drug-naïve’ to heroin anywhere near as fast in all my life. I’m seeing a drug progression of six months.”
“The number-one place” for youth to obtain prescription opiates is a family medicine cabinet or that at a friend’s house, Carise said, which speaks to her contention that “70 percent of heroin use is young adults in suburbia.
“We have a culture in this country where we want a quick fix for things, but we [also]have a culture of kids who are much more used to taking a medication when there’s a problem, or different psychotropic medications, whether it’s Ritalin, Adderol,” she said.
“We’ve associated medication with feeling better in a way much more than any generation before us has.”
The one benefit to operating a recovery facility in such a cultural environment, Carise said, is the outgrowth of evidence-based practices for addictions treatment and a perspective of clinical parity that allows practitioners to treat addictions like other diseases—both of which are needed in a state that “certainly [has]a shortage of beds” for inpatient treatment, she said.
“This is really just a great time for more programs to be available,” Carise said.