Good project, wrong site

Supervisors uphold new general plan in disapproving of addiction treatment center

This aerial view of the Honeyrock Ministries site shows that the proposed treatment center for Indian youth would occupy only about six of its 32 acres. Opponents faulted it for failing to conform to the county’s new general plan, however.

This aerial view of the Honeyrock Ministries site shows that the proposed treatment center for Indian youth would occupy only about six of its 32 acres. Opponents faulted it for failing to conform to the county’s new general plan, however.

Photo By butte county

Anyone who doubts the power of a general plan—especially a freshly written one like Butte County’s—should have been at the county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday (Sept. 15).

At issue was a youth treatment center proposed for a 32-acre parcel off Oro-Bangor Highway in the east Oroville foothills. Sponsored by California Area Indian Health Services, the 32-bed center with five family suites would have helped Native American teenagers with substance-abuse problems to clean up and get their lives back on track. Not only that, it would have brought $17 million in construction funding and $4 million in annual spending into the community and created 70 jobs.

Everybody, proponents and opponents alike, agreed it was a worthy enterprise that was welcome in the Oroville area. The question, however, was whether the site was appropriate.

The facility would be located on land belonging to the former Honeyrock Christian Ministries, which had its own history of working with troubled youth on the site. Vivian Meyer Lawson, a former county supervisor who with her late husband Bob Meyer operated the ministries, told the supervisors she needed to retire. She urged them to support the proposed center, saying the site was “a beautiful piece of land, a place to turn lives around.”

It’s located in an area of small olive and citrus farms and vineyards southeast of Oroville that increasingly has become a tourist destination. The Sierra Oro Farm Trail tour, which this year will be held Oct. 10-11, includes several farms and vineyards in the area.

The supervisors weren’t actually deciding on the project. CAIHS is a branch of the National Indian Health Services, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so the county ultimately lacks decision authority on the project. Instead, the board was being asked whether it approved of, was neutral on, or disapproved of the project.

Dr. David Sprenger, the chief medical officer for CAIHS, explained that the center would serve about 80 clients a year, providing “culturally appropriate treatment and training.” Employees ranging from counselors to cooks would come from the local community.

He stressed that, of the 32 acres, only six would be actively used, with the rest serving as a natural preserve. He said the beauty and serenity of the oak-studded foothills would “promote healing and growth” and that the center would have no impact on the surrounding community.

Addressing neighbors’ concerns about having addicted teens in their midst, he said, “Fear that this facility could be dangerous is understandable, but it’s exaggerated and not something to worry about.”

In this he was echoed by Tom Eaglestaff, who has directed similar youth treatment centers in Nevada and South Dakota. In the latter, he said, runaways averaged one per year and there were no acts of violence in his 12 years there.

“You’ll probably hardly ever know it’s there,” he said.

Neighbors were virtually unanimous in opposition, however, though they were careful to say they supported the project in concept. One, Robert Friedman, reminded the board that, during the recent General Plan 2030 process, the area had been designated rural-residential with an agricultural overlay.

“A hospital-like medical treatment building was never envisioned for the area,” he said. “If this is approved, what next?”

The Honeyrock site, others said, is right in the middle of the area—“the heart of our watermelon,” as resident James Dinley put it—and its use as a treatment facility would be inappropriate.

Another speaker, Lou Lodigiani, who grows citrus on Circle View Drive, asked the board to help the CAIHS find a suitable spot in Oroville. “We all support their program, we support the jobs, the construction money, but there are other sites in this community.”

He presented petitions he said had the signatures of 353 neighbors opposed to the project.

There was some mention of fear of runaways, but only Tony Burdine, a retired but still part-time sheriff’s deputy who lives in the area, suggested the center might be dangerous. “It’s a rehab detention center, in my opinion,” he said. “I sure don’t want to be there and have to send someone out to investigate a horrendous crime.”

The supervisors all said they supported the project and weren’t worried about problems. As Supervisor Maureen Kirk pointed out, neighbors had similar concerns about the Esplanade House transitional facility in Chico, “and now some of them are volunteering there.”

Supervisor Jane Dolan said the site was “far too rural and lacks the infrastructure and services that will be needed.” And Supervisor Steve Lambert said it was “important that people realize what a unique part of our county this area is. It’s a gem.”

Board Chairman Bill Connelly, who represents the affected area, said he hoped the CAIHS would work with the county to find another site, but that he couldn’t justify upending a land-use designation that people had worked hard to achieve.

The vote to disapprove was 5-0.

Afterwards, Sprenger said the outcome was “certainly disappointing. … It does set us back.”

Does that mean CAIHS will look elsewhere for a site? “It’s conceivable we could go on [working with Butte County],” he replied. “But we definitely could go outside the county.”