Brookfield residents say they were surprised over Labor Day weekend by a letter informing them that a treatment facility would be coming to their backyards by default.
By Matt Skoufalos | September 6, 2016
Residents of the Brookfield section of Cherry Hill were rattled over the Labor Day weekend by the claim that a 90-bed behavioral health treatment facility would be coming to a lot adjoining their homes and a little league field.
Addressed from attorney Jeffrey Baron, of the Voorhees-based Baron and Brennan, PA, the letter advised recipients that the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Advanced Recovery Systems “claims approval” of its site plan “due to the Cherry Hill Township Planning Board’s failure to grant or deny” its application within a statutory period.
The property in question, 1205 Berlin Road, is the site of the former U.S.S. New Jersey masonic lodge No. 62 situated between the southbound entrance to I-295 and Ashbrook Road. It houses a solar array and large parking lot, and is separated from nearby residences by a small fence and a treeline.
Bridget Palmer, Director of Communications for Cherry Hill Township, said Baron’s letter is “really misleading and understandably concerning” to residents. Palmer said the township planning board has until October 21 to schedule a hearing on the application, which was made in February.
In the meantime, the mayor and council have been working to acquire the property or to preserve it as open space through the Camden County Board of Freeholders. Palmer said she wasn’t privy to any valuation of the property, but that its proximity to the baseball field “really makes sense to make it open space, and that is the mayor and council’s position right now.
“There has been no approval,” she said. “This is still an active application in community development.”
In a letter to residents Tuesday, Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn and Council President David Fleischer said the recovery center “is aware the township wants to preserve this property from development.
“We will continue to vigorously pursue that preservation,” the letter said.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the township planning board, Cherry Hill Director of Community Development Paul Stridick said the township believes it is within the 95-day statutory period from the July 18 completeness review of the application.
Planning Board counsel James Burns, Esq., said the body rejects Baron’s position.
“We don’t agree with that at all, and we’re prepared to take action that an automatic approval is not provided,” Burns said.
Resident David Okin said he received the letter over the Labor Day weekend notifying him that the application for a 90-bed behavioral health rehabilitation center was “approved by default.” Neighbors described the property as unoccupied, but maintained, and noted that the parking lot had once held a Christmas tree fundraiser.
In addition to the bombshell notice, Okin objected to the idea of siting a recovery center in a neighborhood with “zillions of kids,” and worried about the impact of such a facility on traffic, access, and safety. He and Christine Holmes, whose backyard abuts the property, were also concerned about their property values.
“I think it does terrible for resale value down the line,” Holmes said. “That’s a concern.”
“It would destroy our property values if you were to put a giant building there,” Okin said.
Andrew Behrend, whose backyard also adjoins the masonic center lot, said he’d love to see the property become park land or an extension of the athletic fields.
Behrend, too, was upset with the timing and nature of Baron’s notice.
“I think the part of this I object to the most is that they dropped it on us,” Behrend said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of open business buildings that are here,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of retail space that’s empty. Why they would be insistent about dropping this into a community where security would be an issue, I don’t understand.”
Peter and Carin Lehman, parents of six children in the neighborhood, said they are sympathetic to the crisis of addiction, but would prefer the recovery center sought a different setting.
“These types of facilities are needed, but there’s so many other locations in Cherry Hill and even Camden County that are so much better suited for this type of facility,” Carin Lehman said. “Where people would be coming and going, there’s an exit for 295, and [Haddonfield-] Berlin Road is a nightmare already. I can’t imagine.”
Peter Lehman suggested that the industrial zone surrounding the Woodcrest Speedline might make a better location for a recovery center.
Michael Stolzer, who lives four blocks away from the site, said he’s lost family members to addiction, and is “totally sympathetic to the problem.
“But I am more sympathetic to protecting kids,” he said.
“My fear here is if it’s outpatient near the ball field, near the [Brookfield] alternative school, you’re getting kids involved besides the kids in the neighborhood.”
Former Cherry Hill American Little League President Donald Lee Federline said that several families who would be affected by the decision—namely, those participating in sports at the nearby athletic fields—wouldn’t receive legal notice, but “will want to be part of this process.
“I don’t live within 200 feet of the area, but I have a vested interest,” Federline said. “The improvements we’ve made to the field have made the facility amazing, and a place where parents want to be with their kids.”
“We’ve got so many families that are involved back there,” said resident and Little League coach Jack Dyer. “We want to learn more about everything: what’s going on, why it’s happening. [We want to] make sure our families are being notified and have a say.”
Baron is no stranger to the intricacies of land use law surrounding the siting of behavioral treatment centers.
In October 2015, he represented a Haddonfield citizens group opposed to a plan from developer J. Brian O’Neill to situate a similar facility on a plot of land belonging to Bancroft.
According to statistics provided on the website for Advanced Recovery Systems, 26 percent of its patients are seeking treatment for addiction to heroin or opiates, and another 21 percent for alcohol addiction.
Reports provided by NJTV and elsewhere show New Jersey is suffering a heroin overdose rate triple the national average, and treatment center admissions is up, even as the availability of such facilities is not.
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