In Highlands, Detox Center’s Proposed Site Prompts Questions

September 21, 2018
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Jeffrey A. Berman, M.D. is an expert witness who testified to the need for detoxification facilities
in New Jersey. He displayed a map showing the 17 centers and 600 beds around the state. Photo by Chris Rotolo

By Chris Rotolo |

HIGHLANDS – A hearing for a detoxification center proposed for construction in the borough’s central business district was almost halted before it even got started.

During a Sept. 6 meeting of Highlands’ Land Use Board, alternate board member Christian Lee presented an amendment to a borough ordinance adopted Sept. 19, 2007, which aimed to prohibit the new construction and operation of a rehabilitation-oriented center within 1,000 feet of such structures as residential homes, businesses, religious centers and schools.

Based upon Lee’s discovery, the board debated for more than hour whether to delay the hearing until the magnitude of the ordinance could be investigated by the applicant, Polaris Retreat, LLC, as well as the an attorney hired by the local opposition group Highlands Action Committee.

The hearing continued as scheduled following the board’s split 4-4 vote.

During the hearing, board members raised concerns about the potential for clients of Polaris Retreat to leave the facility during or before the completion of their treatment. Board member Frank Nolan posed the question to the first of three expert witnesses scheduled to testify on behalf of Polaris Retreat.

Jeffrey A. Berman, M.D., F.A.S.A.M. said the probability was unlikely, as patients admitted to the facility would be battling withdrawal and in turn experiencing immense discomfort and flu- like symptoms that would be treated 24 hours a day by on-site medical staff.

Attorney James L. Lott (left) and Jeffrey A. Berman, M.D. (right) argue before the Highlands Land Use Board on behalf of Polaris Retreat, a proposed 18-to-20-bed detox facility. Photo by Chris Rotolo

“Is it possible? You know what, anything is possible. Potentially, in the United States of America today, patients have the potential to get up and walk out, but no one is getting up and walking out,” said Berman, who is the senior psychiatric consultant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well the executive medical director for Discovery Institute in Marlboro and an addiction and consultation psychiatrist at SOBA College Recovery.

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“I must tell you, I’ve seen very few people; we very rarely see people say, ‘I’m getting up and walking out.’ They may call for a family member or they might ask us to transport them,” Berman added, stating that it is standard protocol for facilities to arrange transportation to a safe location for patients who wish to leave. And for patients who complete their detox, Berman said medical staff will arrange transport to a rehabilitation center.

Polaris Retreat is a for-profit detoxification facility with 18 to 20 coed beds proposed for the vacated Highlands Methodist Church at 181 Bay Ave.

Currently, those seeking to rid their bodies of alcohol or narcotics must seek sanctuary in one of a mere 600 beds in the state of New Jersey, which are housed in 17 detoxification centers.

If approved, Polaris Retreat would be the first standalone detox center in the Bayshore and Monmouth County, and the most accessible detox facility to those living in the Two River area.

Berman said a facility like Polaris Retreat is integral to the area, as the opioid epidemic continues to ravage local communities.

Berman said statistics show that in New Jersey seven to eight people die from overdoses daily, and many 18-to-30-year-olds who are resuscitated with the use of NARCAN often enter rehabilitation facilities with cognitive damage due to a lack of oxygen to the brain.

“These are people with a disease that will very likely kill them. The way to help prevent this is to get people into treatment as soon as possible,” Berman said. “If someone is ready for treatment, that’s the golden moment, and you may not get another chance. To then tell that person you have to wait a couple of days for a bed, it just doesn’t work. We do not have enough facilities for a state with 9 million people in it.”

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The hearing is scheduled to continue Oct. 30, where more insight on the aforementioned ordinance is expected to be shared.

According to the amendment, in 2007 the borough’s governing body determined that such facilities “present hazards to the health, safety and general welfare of the community,” including “such negative secondary effects as neighborhood deterioration and concentration of crime, as well as the creation of public and private nuisances and health concerns.”

Highlands Action Committee founder Greg Wells said he believes the discovery of this amendment should bring the Borough Council into the fold.

“It sounds like this issue probably has to go before the Borough Council, because we have a church four buildings down from the site. We have our community center in the area, which has day care and aftercare for children,” said Wells, whose opposition group has raised approximately $10,000 to fight the development of Polaris Retreat.

“This is a concern for us now, but it was on the books in 2007, so it must have been a concern 10 years ago too. If we had an ordinance against having dogs in town, a board can’t issue you permission to have a dog. It should be the same for a detox center. A borough ordinance is a borough ordinance. You can’t trump that.”

The Polaris Retreat application first came before the Land Use Board July 11. The board now has less than 60 days to complete the hearing, and is considering holding several special meetings over the next two months to ensure a resolution. The next scheduled hearing date is slated for Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 7:30 p.m.

This article was first published in the Sept. 13-20, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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