Attorneys for Advanced Recovery Systems claimed statutory approval to build an inpatient center in the Brookfield masonic lodge, but the Cherry Hill Planning Board formally denied their application Monday.
By Matt Skoufalos | October 18, 2016
A Florida treatment center seeking to open an inpatient therapy facility in an abandoned masonic lodge in Cherry Hill likely will require a judge’s ruling to do so.
Over the Labor Day weekend, attorneys for Advanced Recovery Systems (ARS) of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told neighbors in the Brookfield section of Cherry Hill that ARS was claiming statutory approval for a plan to turn U.S.S. New Jersey masonic lodge No. 62 into its first New Jersey location.
Residents flooded the September meeting of the Cherry Hill planning board to protest the move, and were told then that the township disputed the “default approval” claim, a position the body upheld again at its October 17 meeting.
Planning board counsel James Burns described the action as “a procedural nullity” based on ARS’ failure to appear before the board with a complete site plan for the facility, or, alternatively, to request an adjournment. Burns testified Monday that he had received a written response from ARS attorney Jeffrey Baron on October 11 acknowledging that if ARS did not appear at the October 17 meeting or reschedule its appearance, the board “would have no alternative” but to deny the application without prejudice.
“I think the applicant was properly advised of the hearing,” Burns said Monday. “They chose not to be present tonight.”
After the board voted to deny the application early in its agenda, a roomful of residents filed out into the hallway.
But on Tuesday, ARS lawyer Jeffrey Brennan, of the Voorhees-based Baron and Brennan, P.A., maintained the position that his clients had already claimed default approval of the plan “by virtue of the planning board’s failure to act in time.
“Their denial has no force in effect whatever,” Brennan said Tuesday.
“The planning board became divested of jurisdiction when they failed to act.”
Brennan further added that ARS has filed suit against the planning board and Cherry Hill Director of Community Development Paul Stridick in New Jersey Superior Court.
“They have yet to file an answer,” he said.
At issue will be which side has the right of law in the statutory period under which the completeness review of the application must be completed. Stridick has said the township believes it is within the 95-day timeframe allowable by law from the July 18 completeness review of the application.
Brennan said he expects that a judge could review the merits of the case within a month, with a possible trial scheduled thereafter.
Despite neighborhood objections—the property borders a tree-lined development and a little league baseball field—ARS Chief Legal Officer Stewart Gold said that the patients the facility would serve are voluntarily in treatment, not court-ordered. Gold said that people battling substance abuse face stigmatization despite the obvious need for the treatment of their conditions in a state that has acknowledged its epidemic battle with addictive behaviors.
“People tend to think that the people we treat at our facilities are criminals,” Gold said. “They’re people in the local community who don’t have many options for help. There’s not enough beds to serve the population that needs it.”
Residents had objected to the proposal for fear that it would negatively affect their property values, an assumption Gold said was unfair in the context of addressing a health epidemic.
“I understand the concern, but we’re not going to not try to help the people of New Jersey because of that concern,” Gold said.
“We typically don’t select [our sites]based on the fear of opposition,” Gold said. “We select in areas that we believe need treatment, and we go from there.”
The U.S.S. New Jersey Lodge would be the first ARS location in New Jersey. The company already has treatment facilities in Florida, Colorado, and Washington State.
Bridget Palmer, Director of Communications for Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the township is “still committed to purchasing” the property, and is in talks with the Camden County government to acquire the land.
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