Plans for a new substance abuse treatment facility in Kent are currently on hold because a not-for-profit competitor is suing to stop it from opening.
The state of Connecticut had more than 1,000 opioid-related deaths in 2017. The backers of this new facility said the additional resources will help by providing more treatment options for those battling addiction. But another treatment center in town has filed a lawsuit to stop the proposed project citing concerns about the proposed location and increased pressure on first responders.
“This is going to be a major positive,” said Ari Raskas, who will manage the new facility.
Raskas has plans to convert an old nursing home on Maple Street in Kent into the new facility. Raskas said the nursing home has been vacant for two and a half years.
Kent’s Planning and Zoning Commission gave Raskas the “green light” in October 2017 to convert the building into an 85-bed for-profit, voluntary, inpatient drug and alcohol rehab facility called the Birch Hill Recovery Center.
Raskas said the project will bring close to 100 new jobs.
“To treat so many of the people right now who are suffering Connecticut has only 200 non-hospital detox beds,” Raskas told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters.
Raskas said Birch Hill will be accepting commercial and private insurance plans but not Medicaid patients.
“Birch Hill will be admitting patients with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) as well as patients suffering from alcohol or other substance use disorders (SUD),” Raskas said.
Raskas is proposing 58 intensive treatment rehabilitation beds, 22 detox beds and five medical triage beds for the new facility, The project would provide what some community members said are desperately needed resources, as well as solve the problem of the unused nursing home property.
“We need something, plus we’ve got a building sitting up there with no tax,” Carol Hall, a longtime Kent taxpayer, told NBC Connecticut.
Kent resident Mona Burns, who has been in recovery for several years, said she supports the project because it gives people another option to get help.
“I support the beds we need as much help as we can get especially in this area, in particular with the heroin epidemic and the fentanyl thing. It’s deadly serious and it needs to be addressed, it’s hard not to support,” Burns said.
But some worry an additional rehabilitation facility could put too much pressure on Kent’s first responders. There are already two facilities in town, including Kent’s High Watch Recovery Center, which is now suing to stop the new center from moving in.
In the lawsuit, High Watch calls the commission’s decision unreasonable – arbitrary – illegal and unlawful.
The suit adds, “The Kent volunteer ambulance service and single regional paramedic will be unable to accommodate the increased call volume from the birch hill facility, and therefore will be unavailable to treat High Watch patients when needed.”
The chief of the volunteer fire department agrees with that concern.
“A facility like this, we believe will increase call volume, which may overtax our current EMS system,” Chief Alan Gawel told the Troubleshooters over the phone.
Raskas responded to those concerns.
“We’re going above and beyond as it relates to the staffing ratio, the staffing mix that we have because we are going to be providing a higher level of medical care and so by doing so we’re obviously going to be much more capable of medical issues that may arise that wouldn’t be a strain on local ambulances," he said. "Safety is of paramount concern to us. All we can do is run the best professional organization we possibly can. We’re going to have 24/7 security on site, we’ll have the proper protocols in place to deal with any related issues that come up.”
One of the biggest concerns is the location of the proposed facility, which is only a half mile from the center of town.
Land use attorney Joe Williams, who represents the not-for-profit High Watch, declined to answer our questions but shared some of his concerns at a public hearing about the walking distance between Birch Hill and schools as well as businesses that sell alcohol.
Kent Planning and Zoning officials said they approved the permit because it meets town regulations.
“We actually figured we would probably get sued either way the decision went, there are interests, and emotions,” said John Johnson, the chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Raskas told NBC Connecticut they’ve filed a motion to dismiss High Watch Recovery Center’s lawsuit. The case is currently working its way through the court system.
A public hearing for Birch Hill’s state certification application will be held 10 a.m. Wednesday at 19 Main St. in New Milford. A decision won’t come that day, but is expected within 60 days of the hearing.