City board’s split vote blocks the expansion of treatment center
The Hot Springs Board of Directors was split Tuesday after hearing almost two hours of testimony from Whittington Valley residents opposed to the expansion of Covenant Recovery’s 276 Linden St. facility, along with court and elected officials who said the city needs more residential treatment options for misdemeanor drug and alcohol offenders.
The board’s 3-3 vote for the resolution approving a conditional-use permit allowing up to 48 residents at the 10,000-square-foot building next to Linden Park reversed the unanimous approval the planning commission granted at its March 11 meeting.
Whittington Valley Neighborhood Association President Mark A. Toth appealed the planning commission action. The board’s vote Tuesday night marked the second time in four weeks it reversed or remanded a planning commission decision.
Mayor Pat McCabe, District 1 Director Elaine Jones and District 2 Director Erin Holliday supported the resolution. District 3 Director Marcia Dobbs-Smith, District 4 Director Carroll Weatherford and District 6 Director Steve Trusty opposed the motion to approve.
The motion needed four votes for adoption. District 5 Director Karen Garcia didn’t attend Tuesday night’s business meeting and didn’t participate remotely. City Attorney Brian Albright said the conditional-use application can be resubmitted to the planning commission after 180 days.
The 4 acres zoned Office/ Neighborhood Commercial, or C-3, is surrounded by Low Density Residential, or R-3, zoning. The city said a conditional use is required to expand the building’s occupancy from the eight residents who currently reside there to the 48 Covenant Recovery requested. A residential group living facility is permitted in the C-3 zone on a conditional basis, according to the zoning code’s table of permitted uses.
Covenant Recovery Founder and Director Jeremy McKenzie said Wednesday that he’ll continue to operate the Linden Street facility as an eight-person treatment center but was uncertain how long he could stay in business at that capacity. Many of the people he planned to place there would’ve been sent by court order.
“I’ll continue to run a very small-scale program with eight people, but I can’t do that forever,” he said. “It’s not feasible to run a very small-scale program there forever. If the option were eight people or nothing, I’d have to chose nothing.
“Today, I’m going to continue to proceed with the eight people. I’ll do the God’s honest best I can to continue to serve the community of Hot Springs, to provide the best quality service that we can under the current restrictions. I will evaluate my options for the property moving forward.”
The zoning code allows up to eight unrelated people to cohabitate without planning commission or board approval. The city said it’s likely previous owners of the Linden Street property had more than eight people in residence. Covenant Recovery acquired the property in a December foreclosure sale. A bank foreclosed on the previous owner, Quapaw House Inc., which used the building as a residential treatment center.
“There was very little documentation beyond the 1979 zoning change as far as what was approved and what was not,” Planning and Development Director Kathy Sellman told the board. “Documentation the applicant had regarding prior licensure by the state, which was not provided to the city at any time prior to this application, does indicate that significantly more people than eight have been at the site.”
Toth, the first of about a dozen people who spoke against the resolution, told the board he wasn’t opposed to having a residential treatment center in the neighborhood, but he was opposed to the traffic and disruption he said would proceed from a 48-bed facility.
“I’m objecting to 48,” he said. “Not who is the 48. I would be up here complaining if it were a 48-bed bed-and-breakfast, a 48-bed hotel, if it were a 48-bed nunnery. You’re going to have a lot of traffic. You’re going to have a lot of hustle and bustle. It will disturb the quiet character of the neighborhood.”
Others told the board their opposition was rooted in the fear of what might happen if a resident of the facility left the property unsupervised.
“I’m not worried about traffic,” Zack Dryden, who lives nearby and owns a pottery story on Whittington Avenue, said. “I’m across the street and up the hill from here. I live here every single day. These are wild cards, get it. I am concerned about the future of my business and my children and my household.
“I’m scared, and you should be too about how this is going to affect Hot Springs and the downtown area. It only takes one bad apple to spoil the batch. Let’s not let an apple with some worms in it spoil everything.”
District 41 State Court Administrator Mark Allen told the board the county’s two district judges offer some misdemeanor drug and alcohol offenders the option of serving their sentences in residential programs such as Covenant Recovery. They’re sent to the Garland County Detention Center if they violate the terms of their alternative sentence, he said.
The court sends some offenders to Covenant Recovery’s Pine Bluff location.
“(Covenant Recovery) is one of our better programs,” Allen said. “It’s one of many we use. It’s not the only program we have in town. There’s multiple programs, but their bed space is limited.”
State Rep. Richard McGrew, R-District 22, of Piney, said the area needs more residential treatment options for misdemeanor offenders. He’s worked to find providers that can fill the void left by Quapaw House’s dissolution and started a support group for families and friends of addicts. He also owns the Rose Villa Senior Living Apartments in Whittington Valley.
“We’re either going to have them in a facility like this where they’re trying to get better and they’re controlled, or they’re going to be running down our community,” he told the board. “Our judges know that. The judges all sent letters in support of Covenant. It’s a great thing that’s needed in our community.
“That facility is already a commercial facility that has been a drug and alcohol treatment center for years. I’ve been there with Quapaw when the building was full. We’re not doing anything in that community that wasn’t already there in the community. Alcohol and drugs are in our community in a huge way. This is a way leaders in our community have asked for, so that we can help get those people off the street and get them the help they need.”
Several neighborhood residents and property owners told the board they agreed more residential treatment options are needed in Garland County. They said putting a 48-bed center, which some compared to a correctional facility, in a residential area didn’t make sense.
District 1 Director Erin Holliday agreed, telling the board there’s better locations for a residential treatment center than next to a city park. She lives and works in the neighborhood and represents its residents on the board but said she also views land use controversies from the perspective she acquired as a former planning commissioner.
She said she was torn between carrying out the will of her constituents and upholding a planning commission decision with which she agreed. The fact that the zoning code permits residential group living facilities in the C-3 zone on a conditional basis ultimately informed her vote.
“There’s other things that could go into this building that would not come before us, would not come before planning commission, like a body shop and a grocery store, things that would have much more traffic and have a huge impact, potentially negatively, on the neighborhood,” she said.
“Perhaps if this weren’t already zoned C-3, we might be having a different conversation. I just wanted to say for the record this is not an easy conversation within myself.”