Neighbors express concern, but planning commission votes to allow facility
Princeton – The Princeton Planning Commission’s vote on a conditional use permit Nov. 21 cleared the way for New Freedom Inc. to open a residential treatment house where men can get help with mental illness, including addiction, at 1101 N. Fifth St. beginning in early 2017.
Cheryl Minx and Cindi Naumann of New Freedom Inc. requested the permit. The commission held a public hearing Nov. 21, after which commission members voted unanimously to grant the permit.
Princeton Community Development Director Jolene Foss said the commission has the authority to directly grant conditional use permits. For interim use permits, the Planning Commission makes a recommendation and the City Council decides whether to grant the permit.
New Freedom is permitted to operate a residential treatment facility for men who have chemical dependency or mental health issues, or both. The state-licensed residential facility can serve up to 16 individuals. Services offered will be treatment, room and board for up to 90 days, substance and mental health assessments, medication education, relapse prevention and recovery coaching.
The property is zoned R-3, which allows an average residential density of seven to 16 units per acre. The commission attached several conditions to the permit:
•Install a privacy fence around the smoking area.
•Give local people priority admittance into the program.
•Review permit annually with city staff.
•Provide transportation to clients instead of them walking to appointments.
Staff at the facility will include three full-time professionals, two full-time paraprofessionals and six part-time support staff.
Minx and Naumann said the state approved and licensed the facility. They presented a letter of support from Mille Lacs County’s health and human services department.
The permit paperwork references a need in the county and state for substance misuse and mental health programs, especially since some local services were lost in 2013. Minx said the treatment facility would also support the potential Mille Lacs County drug court that was proposed in April 2016.
The documents state that a vital part of any drug court is the ability to swiftly have people enter treatment. Minx said the program will be for people in the area they’re already treating in Sherburne, Mille Lacs, Isanti and Benton counties. She said it’s possible some will be from Aitkin or Morrison counties, too, since services to the north are limited. Program referrals come from the Minnesota Department of Corrections and Mille Lacs County probation, as well as Lighthouse Family Services, Accurate Home Care, Hoffman Counseling, Fairview Health System, Allina Health Care and Mille Lacs Health Care.
Minx confirmed that she has helped establish similar programs in residential neighborhoods within Anoka and Alexandria.
Neighborhood shares concerns
Several neighbors said during the public hearing that they worry about safety, facility residents’ interaction with kids and how secure the facility would be, among other things.
Residents from 12 properties in the Evergreen Crossing Townhomes Association said the facility doesn’t belong in a neighborhood. An adjacent resident said the neighborhood is full of seniors and families with children whose sense of security would be impacted. Some feared disruption from noise and cigarette smoke, and several neighbors asked for a fence to be around the yard, especially since clients may have visitors.
A letter outlined multiple concerns about property values, New Freedom’s business background and experience, increased traffic, residents’ criminal background and how clients’ activity will be monitored. A few people at the meeting asked what happens if one of the residents has a bad mental-health day. Would or could they hurt someone?
Minx and Naumann pointed out that addicts and people with mental health conditions are already living in and around Princeton, but the residential treatment facility gives them a structured healing environment. Most are ill with a chronic condition, and while some may have criminal offenses in their past, none would be level 3 (violent) sex offenders.
Some asked who pays for the treatment. Minx said insurance does. Normally stays are not longer than 90 days and though activities are controlled, residents are not confined. Neighbors questioned how one staff person overnight could watch multiple individuals on three levels of the property. Minx explained that bedrooms are on one level together.
Minx said the treatment will have levels of low, medium and high intensity for a variety of problems that may range from depression and anxiety to substance abuse and chemical dependency. Foss mentioned at the November meeting that Princeton Police Chief Todd Frederick had expressed faith in the program.
Residents asked if the permit could be revoked if police calls to the property increase after the program starts. Generally speaking, that could happen, but the increased calls would have to be quantified and documented.
Minx recommended reading the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2016 report on alcohol, drugs and health, “Facing addiction in America.” An executive summary of the report states that counseling and outpatient settings may be sufficient for people with mild substance-use disorders, but “residential treatment may be necessary for people with a severe substance-use disorder.”
She said it isn’t unusual for people to have heightened fear because of the stigma attached to mental illness. She said she’s never had a problem with one of the programs but will keep in touch with the neighbors to ease their fears and correct any situations that may occur.