747-749 Walnut Street, soon to be a recovery house
The notice alerting residents to the proposed facility at 747-749 Walnut Street
Columbia will be getting a recovery house at 747-749 Walnut Street, to the surprise and dismay of many neighbors and borough officials. According to several councillors, the borough first caught wind of the project last Tuesday or Wednesday, and neighbors found out Thursday morning when they received an anonymous typed notice that was later posted on Facebook. Columbia Spy first heard about the project at last Wednesday's safety committee meeting when Police Chief Jack Brommer asked Zoning and Planning Officer Jeff Helm about it.
Chris Dreisbach, founder and CEO of "Blueprints for Addiction Recovery"
According to the Lancaster County Office of the Recorder of Deeds, a deed for the property was recorded on April 10, 2018 under the name "Blueprints for Addiction Recovery" of which Christopher Dreisbach is the founder of CEO. At Monday's council meeting, Dreisbach stated that he discussed the property with Helm "the second I bought the building." Assuming Dreisbach is correct, residents and borough officials were kept in the dark for about a month.
747 Walnut, currently under renovation
It wasn't just lack of notification that many found disturbing, however. Residents of the 700 block of Walnut Street were also concerned about potential problems with occupants of the recovery house. A dozen or so residents attended Monday's borough council meeting to voice their concerns.
One resident was perturbed about the lack of information available, among other issues. “We came here blind tonight,” she said. She also told council that pushers in the area will try to get occupants hooked again and that the facility would decrease property values and possibly increase crime in the neighborhood. Another resident concurred: “You are setting these people up to fail. We have dealers on our street.” She said dealers operating in the alley behind the house are going to "hit them."
Still another resident said, “We were never informed that this was coming into our neighborhood. We had no say. As a taxpayer, I feel that we should have had some input into agreeing to have this into our block. We already have two facilities for this. I understand there’s one up on 14th Street. Why do we need a third?” She cited a recent WGAL report on the opioid crisis which stated that Lancaster is the number one area of concern, with Columbia being number two. Residents were also concerned about the safety of children in the area, noting that the neighborhood is close to an elementary school, and high school students walk that block on their way home. Councillor Todd Burgard added that, according to the organization "American Addiction Centers," 40-60% of those who have completed some kind of addiction program relapse.
Despite the concerns, Dreisbach defended his program by pointing out its value to those in need. “This will be the next step back towards living life,” he said. Although he couldn't guarantee there won’t be any relapses, he said, “These people are people who are going to be trying to better their lives.”
Dreisbach explained that his organization is associated with "A New Life LLC," which houses residents at a building at 228-230 Cherry Street. He described "Blueprints" as apartment-style living for people with disabilities, those being drug addiction and alcoholism. Specifically, the facility is for people who have already completed a treatment program, to afford them more tools and advantages as they move forward. He said the program is licensed through the PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
He noted that the typical turnover for residents is 30 to 60 days, although some have stayed longer. He also told those present that the Cherry Street facility has operated for four and a half years without any issues. He added that Columbia is the only municipality where his organization has buildings.
The Walnut Street facility will be strictly for women. Dreisbach said the rent ($125 a week, everything included) will be paid for out-of-pocket or with scholarships from non profits. Dreisbach said he is funding costs of the building and the program himself and is taking nothing from taxpayers.
Dumpster permit, dated April 23, 2018
Unfortunately, three current tenants of the building will be displaced to accommodate the needs of the program. Dreisbach said that on May 1, he gave them a 90-day notice, more than the 30 days stipulated in the lease from the previous landlord. He promised help for them to relocate, if needed. He said the Federal Fair Housing Act allows his organization to provide for people with disabilities.
Dreisbach explained that residents must adhere to a “pre-comprehensive 64-point plan,” which includes getting involved with a recovery program outside of treatment, going to meetings, and working on obtaining employment.
The building's layout will include a common area, to be made from an existing apartment, leaving five efficiency apartments, with two residents per unit. The facility will also include recovery support staff, typically those who have been sober for awhile. Support staff won’t live on site but will be available there 16 hours a day and will provide transportation. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., residents will be out of the building, since they will be bused to a treatment site. There will be a strict curfew of 10 p.m. He plans to build a privacy fence so that neighbors won’t be disturbed.
Earlier in the meeting, Helm had explained that the building will not include treatment or counseling facilities, or any other on-site mentoring. “This is purely a residential apartment building similar to what it was in the past 20 years,” Helm said, and that there will be no zoning regulation changes. Nothing will change other than the individuals occupying the building, Helm asserted.
Despite several concerns, three borough residents defended the program. One, a neighbor of the Cherry Street facility, said he has had no problems with residents there and that he has found no paraphernalia such as liquor bottles and needles. Another resident, who lives on Plane Street, said she had lived in the Cherry Street house and that through the program she had "learned how to better her life." She asked residents to “open their minds about it.” A Perry Street resident said she would welcome the facility in her neighborhood.
Dreisbach also defended the facility against the charge that it will hurt property values. “I can tell you with absolute certainty that property values are only damaged here by school taxes. As a real estate agent, I know this, hands down." He said that through his program blighted properties will be improved. "The properties that we can take are only going to add to the value of the area.”
Another view of 747-749, with dumpster out front
Councillor Cleon Berntheizel said, "Council can’t do anything about this particular place. The debate right now is whether it’s a business or still a residence. Codes will have to decide that. Council can’t decide that." Helm stated that it is a business, "a self-managed business." A Chestnut Street resident noted that at last week's safety meeting, she was told the facility will not be supervised. "Tonight I’m hearing it is going to be supervised,” she said.
Mayor Leo Lutz told Dreisbach, "Theres a place for everything, and my thoughts are this is not the place. If you choose to do this, I can say to you that you will be under the microscope, with police and code-wise.” He also explained to those in attendance why residents were kept in the dark. "We didn’t know about this," he said. "The reason for that was there’s no zoning violation, because it’s an empty building being rehabbed. Until something happens that’s contrary to borough code or zoning, we don’t have an issue, so we didn’t hear about it. Should it have happened differently? You bet your ass it should have happened differently.”
Several residents pointed blame at Helm for leaving them in the dark. One exasperated resident pointed to him and said, “I have to say something. That man knew it! That man knew it right away!” Another resident also blamed Helm. “In all due respect, and I’ve been a friend of Jeff’s for a long time, but it almost sounds like he’s dropped the ball on this to not let the rest of the council know what happened on Walnut Street," she said.