St. Lucie Commission approves conditional use for upscale detox/addiction facility on South Hutchinson Island

FORT PIERCE – The St. Lucie County Commission voted unanimously May 7 to approve a conditional use waiver and pave the way for a planned 220-bed detox and addiction treatment facility on South Hutchinson Island.

At the beginning of the marathon meeting during which numerous economic development officials and island residents spoke both for and against the project, respectively, County Attorney Dan McIntyre advised commissioners they’d need a super majority for approval of the waiver and accompanying zoning atlas amendment and final site plan due to significant opposition from nearby residents. Hours later right before Chairwoman Linda Bartz called the vote, Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky – in whose district the proposed project lay – made it clear the vote on the $87 million project would surpass the super majority.

“As the district commissioner, I could take the easy way out tonight and vote no and still get it passed, but integrity is not defined by doing the right thing when nobody’s looking,” he said before he voted in favor. “Today integrity’s defined by doing the right thing when everybody’s looking.”

Project Manager and Planner Kori Benton provided the Commission a lengthy overview and history of The Atlantic Wellness Center, whose backers want to build the approximately 200,000 square-foot complex on 22.4 acres of vacant land about two miles south of the Ocean Village condominiums. The facility would consist of three 35-foot towers and one 42-foot tower encompassing both adult and adolescent treatment centers and feature 24-hour security in each building and at the main entrance. Mr. Benton admitted that the St. Lucie County Planning & Zoning Commission had recommended denial of the request last August.

“After discussion, they passed a motion by a vote of 7-1 to deny the presented petitions,” he said. “A conversation by the Planning & Zoning Commission at the hearing included concerns regarding traffic impacts and some outstanding concerns concerning traffic certainty as well as emergency management plans or response. Since the Planning & Zoning meeting in August, the applicant’s representatives have submitted supplemental traffic analysis reports and documents pertaining to the project.”

As part of 24 conditions Mr. Benton and county staff have placed on the project, facility must have an emergency management plan approved by local officials, as well as written confirmation from the St. Lucie County Fire District that its water supply, evacuation facilities and emergency access are satisfactory. The developer must also submit an approved sea turtle lighting plan and ensure that all windows and doors facing the ocean be fitted with tinted glass or film to limit visible light transmittance to 45 percent or less.

Dr. Scott Segal, a Miami-based psychiatrist who will oversee operations for Atlantic Wellness, believes that he and the Index Group real estate developers are creating a world-class center unknown in Florida to-date.

“Early on I spoke with the Department of Children & Families, and they are allowing us to have everything in-house instead of having them [patients] reside 10 miles away and bussing them in,” he said. “They’ll sleep on one floor and get treatment on another, So, we’re very excited about that, and it’s really going to be all in one place, which makes it very different.”

Dr. Segal, who said he’s worked in hospitals and upscale treatment facilities from here to Key West, insists the operation will not adhere to the common practice of smaller centers and sober homes of seeking repeat customers.

“One of the statistics that we don’t like to talk about in our field is the relapse rate – it’s terrible,” he exclaimed. “That’s not what we want. There are plenty of people out there that need treatment, and we don’t need them to fail in order to come back. The goal is to get people treated and back to living and not make them professional patients for the rest of their lives.”

Land use Attorney Lee Dobbins Dobbins represented the applicants during the quasi-judicial hearing and touted the economic benefits of the proposed treatment facility, which he insisted would not negatively affect nearby real estate values.

“The facility will provide an average of 180 construction jobs and 216 good paying jobs at capacity with a total payroll of about $11 million per year,” he said. “The average non-physician salary is approximately $50,800 per year.”

Afterward, Fort Pierce attorney Harold Melville spoke on behalf of three groups of island property owners in opposition and compared the size of the proposed facility to nearby hospitals.

“The Tradition hospital before they added the additional floor was 177 beds, and Port St. Lucie Medical Center is 229 bed, so what we’re talking about here tonight is not a small facility,” he said. “We are opposing the applications for the Atlantic Wellness Center for the fundamental reason that this is simply the wrong location for a hospital of any type.”

Christine Newman-Cruz lives about a mile south of the planned location in the Watersong community and believed the Board was setting a dangerous precedent, quoting from the county’s mission statement “to sustain a safe and sustainable community and maintain a high quality of life for all citizens.”

“Rezoning the designated plot of land is not safe, is not sustainable and could potentially cause an irreversible environmental impact on Hutchinson Island,” she said. “I understand and appreciate the need in our society for a facility such as this, and it’s imperative to have it in St. Lucie County. It is not appropriate to be constructed, though, on a residential barrier island where mangrove and sea turtle protection is important to residents.”

Commissioner Kathy Townsend insisted as a former island resident that she understood the residents’ concerns but also saw the need for such treatment programs.

“This is an illness that is in every single family and affects every single one of us,” she said. “Emotionally I would want to say no to this facility because I would want to support you [because] I see and understand your fear. My heart wants to be with you tonight and say no, but the commissioner in me, I have to think of the bigger picture.”

The Commission subsequently voted unanimously to approve developer’s petitions.

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