Zoning Delays Were Nothing More Than Stigma
Don’t underestimate the detrimental effects of stigma on business operations. That’s the wisdom Karen Bownes, executive director and co-founder of Recovery Mountain, wants other treatment center organizations to realize.
After an 18-month battle with local planning officials in central New Hampshire, Recovery Mountain has secured the go-ahead to open in August as a residential program with nine beds, treating men recovering from alcohol, opioid and process addictions. Bownes tells Behavioral Healthcare Executive that the process to gain the approval was unnecessarily convoluted and delayed by barriers that can only be attributed to stigma.
“We thought we knew all about stigma going in, but we had no idea what we were in for or the depth of that discriminatory behavior,” Bownes says.
Many treatment centers face not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) flak when launching new properties. For Recovery Mountain, local residents in the rural area were convinced that the recovery center—at least a quarter-mile away from its closest neighbor—would cause their property values to decrease. Bownes’ team hired a law firm to argue the matter.
“There is no proof that these residential living situations decrease property values, and in some cases, they raise property values,” she says.
Even with that hurdle addressed, other questions were raised by local officials and the community that ultimately led to extensive legwork on the part of Recovery Mountain. Many of the requests were egregious attempts to find loopholes that might prevent the center’s opening, in Bownes’ estimation.
“Once we applied for change-of-use, they created ways to put up road blocks,” she says.
For example, a question was raised about the ratio of paved parking to greenspace—a legitimate regulation in New Hampshire. Although the property had previously been used as a sports center and training facility with an existing parking lot and acreage, Recovery Mountain ended up purchasing an additional three acres to overshoot the minimum standard ratio. The move forced the greenspace concern to become a moot point.
In another frustrating delay, local officials required Recovery Mountain to complete a costly storm-water management study—even though the study was never required for the previous business on the site. Bownes says the planning board even went so far as to hire a third-party engineer to review the study and look for concerns. Ultimately, no problems were found.
Even though Recovery Mountain is set to open next month, it has a total of 11 limitations attached to its use. Bownes believes the limits are nothing more than evidence of stigma among local decision makers.
The recovery center is limited to nine beds as a condition of use, even though the previous business saw hundreds of people accessing the site on a daily basis, she says. The gym and indoor field on the property cannot be used by anyone outside of Recovery Mountain’s program. Future expansion is also limited for the time being, but Bownes’ team might seek to challenge that condition in time. The list goes on.
Ultimately it’s a matter of education, Bownes says, and community stakeholders can be the most difficult to educate. However, she wants the treatment industry to do its part as well.
“We struggled with this battle, and we found few resources to help us other than a legal team,” she says. “We are more than willing to partner with anybody who’s having problems with zoning and planning boards and talk about our journey.”
Addiction professionals annually convene at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders to share what’s working: Clinicians hear from thought leaders on delivering treatment, while executives of behavioral healthcare organizations learn how to run more effective, more efficient, and ethically minded businesses.