WHITE BEAR LAKE — A group recovery facility one resident referred to as another Hazelden lost round one in its quest to change city code.
Lotus Recovery would like to operate a 16-bed residential treatment center for chemically dependent individuals at the property located at 3561 White Bear Ave.
City ordinance currently allows fewer than seven individuals in a group home.
A representative for Lotus, Ryan Eckdahl, told City Council that there is a “social impact” on not providing this service in light of the opioid epidemic and that the city “should want its citizens to have help to succeed.”
The agency has founded or launched eight residential treatment centers, Eckdahl said. Its clientele are voluntary residents who must qualify for treatment and have no sexual offenses. There is 24-hour supervision.
Staff was OK with the proposed change, with conditions, but the Planning Commission recommended denial of the request, citing size of the facility as a primary reason.
City Council members agreed, 3-1, that 16 beds is too many.
“If Lotus comes back with nine, I would consider it,” noted Councilman Dan Jones at the Nov. 12 meeting, “but what you're describing doesn't belong here with that number. I won't support 16.”
The property was vacated in 2017 by Northeast Residence when its adult extended-day facility relocated to County Road E. The nonprofit still owns the home.
Executive Director Heidi Holste reminded council that concerns raised by the Planning Commission were the exact same ones raised when Northeast Residence went before the council 30 years ago. She noted that residents seemed to have a lot of opinions but preferred to hear from experts who know the (chemical dependency) business.
Holste added that the immense house can easily accommodate 16 people. The six-bedroom, five-bath home would be remodeled if Lotus buys it: four additional bedrooms, four offices and a second kitchen would be constructed.
A few people have viewed the property, but it's been tough to market. “There haven't been a lot of lookers,” Holste said. “It's perfect for a mission-driven organization; it's perfect for this purpose.”
A recovering addict also spoke on behalf of Lotus. Carlton Johnson was “one of the gentlemen in a group home.
“Recovery changed my life,” he said. “I was in a similar facility. It was like a family. We all had the same desire to live. Once we combatted addiction, things got brighter for us. I'm a productive member of society now and I can't extend my gratitude enough. I would be lost without recovery.”
Neighbors opposed to the project voiced their concerns at the podium and in writing. Mostly the issue is location.
One Jerry Street resident wrote that White Bear Lake is a “poor alternative selection” for another Hazelden, pointing out that the White Bear Lake location adjoins a shopping center on a noisy intersection. “You are doing patients a grave injustice by placing them in a location like this for rehabilitation,” he said.
City staff was supportive of the project. “The police department had no concerns and intensity did not have an impact on external land use from our standpoint,” noted City Manager Ellen Hiniker.
Councilman Kevin Edberg asked what the largest comparable facility in the city is. “Active would probably be six,” replied Community Development Director Anne Kane. Asked if there is another zone where this size facility would work, Kane said there are a couple. One is a previous medical facility zoned commercial on Bellaire Avenue, and another is the former St. Pius convent.
“My struggle is, I want White Bear Lake to be welcoming of this type of facility,” admitted Bill Walsh. A sober house is a few doors down from him and “they are great neighbors,” he said.
“Sixteen might be an issue. The type of person, I have no concerns about that. We should look for opportunities like this in our city.”
Walsh was the lone “nay” vote to deny the text amendment. Councilman Doug Biehn was absent.
Jones, too, said it wasn't what was happening in the house that bothers him, but the number. “I'm a child of a recovering alcoholic. I wish this type of service were more often available. Do I want 17 people (16 plus staff) living next to me? Absolutely not.”
Lotus Recovery is a for-profit company with more than 20 years of experience with the chemically dependent population. As for other facilities this size, Eckdahl said they only have a 16-person outpatient facility in St. Paul.
After the vote, Mayor Jo Emerson said the city needs to consider: What is the right number?
“We need to be better prepared to address this,” she observed. “This is not going to go away.”
She thanked speakers for their comments, adding, “This was a tough decision for this council.”