Neighbors speak out against planned recovery center
WORTHINGTON — A request by Project Morning Star, a residential recovery program, to establish a transitional, sober-living community on a rural Worthington acreage drew more than a dozen neighbors to the Nobles County Planning Commission’s Wednesday night meeting.
Tom Christian, Project Morning Star’s program director, said the six-acre site south of Indian Lake Baptist Church consisting of two existing homes at 31427 and 31459 Roberts Ave., will provide safe housing for men and women working to overcome an addiction and in need of a place to stay where they don’t have the temptation to relapse.
Christian said the homes may also be available to women and children who have left an abusive situation or individuals suffering from economic catastrophe. Residency will be determined on a case-by-case basis, he added.
Project Morning Star is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization developed as part of Celebrate Recovery, a 12-step program already operating in Worthington.
“What we’ve found in three years of operating that program, with dire housing needs here it’s difficult to find a place where they are not living with friends, relatives or roommates who are still drinking,” Christian said. “Not having that safe, sober environment generally reduces the successful recovery by about half.”
Christian said Project Morning Star will be a recovery residence, with one home for women and the other for men. Because the program is not licensed with the Department of Corrections, it will not accept court-ordered clientele.
“This is strictly a volunteer program” he said. “This would be transitional, safe housing for three to 12 months. It’s really just meant to give folks time to get a better handle on their recovery.”
Those not allowed as clientele would be persons who are registered sex offenders, individuals with violent behavior issues or people who need rehabilitation or drug treatment.
“This would be a program for those who have fallen through the cracks,” Christian said. “They really just need that sober environment for a transitional period before they attempt to go on their own and reintegrate in the community.”
Christian said there are similar programs in shelter houses elsewhere in Minnesota, including Serenity Village in Crystal, and some halfway houses in Marshall. The clients would pay rent, be responsible to help with meal preparation and be able to come and go from the site to work. Shuttle service would be provided for those who don’t have a vehicle.
Persons living there would need to have employment within 30 days or be attending school on a full class load, Christian said, adding that clients will be discouraged from milling around on site with nothing to do.
As the director, he said he would be on site 10 to 12 hours per day, and managers would be hired for each home. Christian resides across the road from the proposed site, and said he could respond quickly to any issues that might arise.
Sam Sholes, who lives down the road from the site, said she was concerned for her family, including two young children.
“I know anyone can come up to anybody’s driveway,” she said, adding that she was concerned these individuals could come on her property. “I’m afraid for my family and my kids for the people that might live in these houses.”
Christian responded that there will be a zero-tolerance policy for the clients, including that they not trespass on property not belonging to Project Morning Star, and also said the clients are not hardened criminals.
“We would like to start changing some of the public perceptions of people that are in recovery,” Christian said, adding that they could be a co-worker, a relative or a friend.
“If we didn’t have an anonymity policy in recovery, you might be surprised,” he said. “These are not shadowy individuals. They’ve made some very poor decisions in their life.”
Sholes also said she didn’t think eight miles south of town was an appropriate place for a recovery facility, and that it made more sense to have the site in town.
“In my mind, the city of Worthington is the best place to put it because you have more patrol,” she said, adding that a rural location put neighbors in danger.
Christian said the rural setting was chosen over an urban one because it provides less temptation for relapse. He said studies have shown people placed in an urban environment have lower rates of successful recovery “because they’re closer to the places that could cause them to relapse.”
The proposed location was one of 15 different properties Christian said he’d examined.
“(This) property was the only one we found that met all of our criteria, including two existing residences,” he said.
Keith Tordsen, who farms land across the road from the proposed site, asked if there would be assurances people wouldn’t trespass or leave garbage such as beer bottles on his field drive or blankets in his field.
Christian responded that Project Morning Star has identified six zero-tolerance policies, ranging from substance abuse and stealing to trespassing, loud music and speeding. He then reiterated the type of clientele that would be housed at the facility.
“We’re really a boarding house that would be providing accommodations for a narrow clientele,” Christian said. “These are not folks sent to us from mental health facilities or from incarceration. These are folks that want to come to a clean, sober place. These are people that are already in recovery.”
Anita and Steve Leach, who also live nearby, said they had concerns for safety as well. An incident last fall on their acreage involving a trespasser required more than 30 minutes for two sheriff’s deputies to arrive on the scene.
“I’ve got to deal with 10 strangers over here who I know have a problem,” Steve Leach told the Planning Commission. “There’s just no physical way we’re going to be able to keep an eye on individuals.
“I really wouldn’t be for it. Who would?” Leach added. “You people on the council, what would your opinion be of it? You don’t have to be hardened criminals to come over and sneak a peek through the windows.”
Christian said he takes the safety concerns of all the neighbors “very seriously.”
“If anything serious happens, these folks are going to be out of our program,” he added.
Planning commission member Steve Brake sympathized with the concerned neighbors and said he had a difficult time “seeing the better side of what they’re looking at.” He was the only commission member to vote against granting the conditional use permit.
Christian said resistance to the plan was expected.
“People in the city want it in the country; people in the country want it in the city,” he said. “One thing that should be kept in mind, under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to deny fair and adequate access to housing to anyone who is in active recovery.”
While Christian said he didn’t want to use that as a club, it’s a simple fact.
Planning Commission member and Nobles County Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. said he understood the neighbors’ concerns and the “not in my backyard” attitude, but his own home is within a short distance of two group homes in Worthington. While the clientele may be different, he said he’s never had a problem.
“I have a problem denying a conditional use permit based on (a past, unrelated experience),” Demuth said. “It’s not a reason to deny an application because something could happen in the future.”
The Planning Commission approved Project Morning Star’s request for a conditional use permit with the condition that a six-year permit be issued with a review after three years. This type of review is common with the issuance of permits for gravel pit mining in Nobles County.
“We could have a review — it doesn’t cost the applicant any money,” explained Nobles County Environmental Services Director Wayne Smith. “That’s how we’ve handled other things that we thought were a good idea but wanted to make sure it was a good idea.”
The Planning Commission’s recommendation will now advance to the Nobles County Board of Commissioners for consideration and final action at its May 6 meeting.
Prior to addressing Project Morning Star’s request, the Planning Commission approved an amendment to Nobles County’s land use ordinance to allow for boarding and sheltering houses, including shelter care homes and bed and breakfast establishments.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.