Thursday, April 20, 2005

Rehab facility tossed back to city zoning

Staff Writer

The conversion of the old Holly Springs convalescent home building on Highway 4 for use as a women’s alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility is still up in the air, awaiting a possible rezoning of the property.

A unanimous vote by the board of aldermen April 5 allows for a public hearing for the possible rezoning of the property from R-12 to B-4 - which could pave the way for the opening of the facility for long-term rehabilitation for women.

Virgil Scherff, a church minister in Victoria, has been seeking to move a women’s rehabilitation center, Teen Challenge (located in Pascagoula), to Holly Springs since the building was donated to his church a year ago. The closest rehabilitation center that accepts women is located in Oxford and is state operated. However, that facility, Haven House, serves as short-term care for both men and women.

Scherff said Teen Challenge is a Christian-based program for treating young women addicted to drugs and alcohol.

He has been seeking a permit to operate Teen Challenge out of the old convalescent home since his church became owner of the building.

But some residents in the area near the facility have opposed such a use by petition and his application was turned down by the Holly Springs Planning Commission.

Scherff then appealed to the board of aldermen and hired an attorney to help with his appeal.

He reviewed how Teen Challenge is operated. It accepts voluntary students - women age 18 and older - and takes them through a 12-month, religion-based recovery program. Women are allowed to leave voluntarily. They are supervised around the clock.

Bill Schneller, acting as Scherff’s attorney, said the building is not fit for anything else but medically-related use.

Mayor Andre’ DeBerry agreed.

“The reason it’s in that neighborhood in the first place is that it was a medical facility. Because it was medical commercial, it can go anywhere (in any zoning district).”

He said he believed aldermen were concerned mostly about its proposed use.

“That’s why we are discussing it at this stage now,” he said. “We did the same thing on a car wash/detail shop on Hudsonville Road.”

Scherff said he spoke to petitioners and found that a fear their homes would be broken into was erroneous. He alleged that the person circulating the petition against the facility’s use for A & D rehab had presented a one-sided view.

Alderman Nancy Hutchens said she received numerous calls from people in her district.

“You say it’s supervised, it’s not a lock in - a voluntary program?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Scherff.

“That’s where more of th concern is,” Hutchens said. “You talk about people (clients) coming from other areas. I have no problem. The Lord works miracles with people on drugs. The problem is it is located in an area where children play in a park. Being supervised is one thing, and being locked down is another.”

Scherff explained that in instances where individuals leave the program without notice that law enforcement is called. For those who ask to leave, the Teen Challenge purchases them a bus ticket and sends them on their way, he said.

“We’ve been doing this for years and never had a problem,” he said.

Schneller added that there were concerns about the prison before it was permitted but no problems have arisen. The board has authority if a problem arises, he said.

Hutchens said her main concern is the location.

Planning Commission director Kelly Jordan said Scherff had been asked for letters of support from neighbors living near the facility but never received any.

“I wonder why you can get letters from the Coast and can’t get any from around here,” Jordan said.

City board attorney Ki Jones said the Planning Commission’s concern is a fair question.

“Did you have any local folks submit in writing, giving their okay?” he asked.

Scherff said there was no need for letters of support because the board had denied his appeal.

DeBerry said it is important for an appellant to bring as much information as possible to the board before a vote is taken.

Scherff said he provided a promotional video for the board review.

Schneller said his client was not requesting a zoning change but a permit for use or reuse of the building.

Scherff said there are churches and schools in the area and the rehabilitation program is both church and school based.

Jones considered the use permit Scherff requested as a zoning matter and recommended a public hearing under rezoning to gather public comment.

“I wish you all told me this two months ago,” said Scherff. “Where do we go from here?”

“Nobody is saying it is not needed,” said Hutchens. “We are saying the location is next to a park with children. Put it in Victoria next to your church.”

Scherff reminded the board that the church received the property as a gift.

“For a tax write off,” said Hutchens.

Schneller reminded that the facility would be used for religious education.

“No rehab?” asked Alderman Russell Johnson.

“The ultimate product is if a person volunteers and comes in, it is a religious program to teach them how to beat the habit. It will not be certified as a school,” said Schneller.

“But some counselling aspect of rehabilitation is not religion,” Johnson said.

“I’m a Christian counselor. I’ve gone to school to do that,” said Scherff.

He added that he paid his $500 for an application for a permit and was denied by the Planning Commission.

DeBerry explained that there were people “vehemently opposed” to the location of the facility for that use, although he was not opposed to it.

He believes the residents in the area want “indisputable evidence this is needed and will work.”

It is the city’s responsibility to provide a public hearing so the board can gather information, he said.

Hutchens clarified that the voice of the people living in the area of the facility would carry more weight than those who do not live there.

At this juncture in the discussion Jones recommended a public hearing be held for rezoning the property.

Johnson provided the motion which Alderman Naylond Hayes seconded and it passed unanimously.

In other business, the board of aldermen:

  • approved a contract with the Town and Country Garden Club to assume responsibility for use and upkeep of the “Little Church” beside city hall.
  • authorized the Historic Preservation Commission to apply for a grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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