By John Burton |
SHREWSBURY — The traditionally quiet, sedate borough was anything but May 11 as some residents gave it to Gov. Chris Christie and loudly voiced concerns about a newly established drug counseling facility.
Christie was on hand on May 11 at 21 White St. for the ribbon cutting and opening of Seabrook House, an outpatient facility that will offer group and individual therapy sessions for those addressing substance abuse recovery.
But as Christie attempted to address the media, elected officials and facility representatives about what he sees as the benefits of such facilities in helping with addiction recovery, he ran into a figurative wall of resistance from area residents.
As Christie stood at the podium, 20 to 30 people who live in the area offered loud boos, yells of “We’re in a drug free zone!” and chants of “not my school.” The comments about the school were referencing Shrewsbury Borough Elementary School, which residents said was a mere 1,000 feet away, across Route 35/Broad Street, on Obre Place.
Nick Klafter, who lives in the neighborhood said, “I don’t think anyone would have an issue with a treatment facility.” But, Klafter added, there were concerns about who would be using the facility, given the neighborhood is largely residential – with some commercial properties in the mix – with a lot of children. Additionally, Klafter continued, White Street is the regular route for children walking to school. “And we’re smack dab in a safe zone,” given its proximity to the school. He was referring to the state-imposed “Drug-Free Zone,” which would impose strict penalties for illegal drug activities within a short distance from school areas.
“We don’t like the location,” said a woman, who declined to give her name. “Why this location? We walk our kids to school.”
“This town is not an angry crowd,” insisted Bill Dodge of his fellow residents gathered near the location. Dodge is a former borough councilman and stood with the objectors just off the facility’s property as they offered their verbal slings and arrows to the governor. “This town cares deeply…It loves its community,” he maintained, and then continued, “It loves its children more.”
Christie has made his commitment to tackling addiction, especially the opioid epidemic, the cornerstone of his administration. And he was certainly undeterred when confronted by the jeers and chants at Seabrook House. “They can yell and scream all they want,” he said, adding “We’re going to help people who need it despite ignorance and intolerance,” he said. Christie called the objectors “NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”) and accused them of hypocrisy. “These are the same people, if it were their children who needed this treatment, they would be screaming for more treatment.”
“Addicts are not the scourge of our community,” said Edward M. Diehl, president of Seabrook House. Seabrook House was started in 1974 by Diehl’s parents, Jerry and Peg Diehl, as a way to help with Edward’s own drug dependence recovery when he was 21. Diehl said last Thursday that he is 42 years clean and sober.
The Shrewsbury location is Seabrook House’s fifth facility; the other sites are in Morristown, Cherry Hill, Bridgeton and Northfield, where the organization offers programs to address alcoholism, drug addiction and other compulsive mental disorders. “We’re here in Shrewsbury because the community needs us,” Diehl said of the latest location.
He was taken aback by the opposition being expressed, which, he said, hasn’t happened when the organization opened its other locations. “This facility is no more of a threat than the dog groomers and the bagel shop,” located on the same block, he said.
The facility will not offer in-patient treatment, nor does it administer medication, Diehl said.
State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon represents the 13th Legislative District. And while Shrewsbury isn’t part of his district, he said he felt compelled to express his support for the facility. In the past O’Scanlon has talked about his brother’s battle with alcoholism, which led to his brother’s death this winter and has the Republican lawmaker supporting Christie’s efforts on this front.
He jumped into the fray, facing angry residents. “There are hundreds of facilities like this in residential areas around the state,” which operate without problem, O’Scanlon told the group, trying to quell their concerns. “These people,” who would use the facility, he said, “are not a threat.”
Addicts have lapses, Dodge countered. “One incident is too many,” he responded.
“These are our kids, our babies,” Dodge added.
Mayor Donald Burden said 21 White St. had been a psychologist’s office for 19 years. And a psychologist has an office just next door as well. Burden said he has heard from residents on both sides of the issue, and officials will pay attention to ensure the facility adheres to its permitted use.
And that was another issue for some residents. Klafter said neighbors were unaware of the type of business and services the facility would provide when it secured borough approval.
The borough zoning officer issued the approval administratively, according to the borough Planning and Zoning Department.
“The zoning officer has an abundance of our material,” Diehl said. “We haven’t kept any secrets.”
“They went through the permit process,” Burden explained. But if Seabrook House wants to expand its services, “They’ll have to come back and get a variance,” Burden said.
Brent MacConnell, the district’s school superintendent, said in an email: “Of course, as the Superintendent here in Shrewsbury, my priority each and every day is the safety, security, and well-being of our students, staff, and school community. I’m confident that our elected officials from the Borough Council will do everything in their power to aid SBS in our efforts to keep our students safe while on the way to and from school, and during the school day. I will be working with the Shrewsbury Police Department to assess and to monitor the situation so that we can ensure that there is no impact on our children or our school.”
Diehl said he is willing to meet with education officials and plans on conducting an open house for area residents to explain what the facility intends to do.
O’Scanlon was optimistic about the long view. “I believe a year from now we’ll say ‘I can’t believe we were that emotional over this’.”
This article was first published in the May 18-25, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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