Following comments from residents and the proposed purchaser of the property, the Tooele City Council unanimously approved the rezone of the Harris Elementary School to pave the way for a drug rehabilitation center during its meeting Wednesday night.
The application from Skull Valley Health Care requested a rezone of the 9.42-acre property from R1-7 residential to MR-8 multi-family residential to repurpose it for a drug rehab center. The staff report for the proposed rezone noted the school building would not be torn down, but remain and be utilized.
Tyson Dixon, the CEO of Renaissance Ranch Treatment Centers, said the facility, which would be purchased and run in cooperation with the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes, would serve both the Native American population and general population. It would also accept Medicaid and be funded by a federal grant.
“In my experience, most everyone has a friend or family member who … struggles with addiction or who has lost their lives or who has lost themselves,” Dixon said. “And it’s largely due to grave misunderstanding, social stigma and particularly in this region, lack of resources to effectively help someone through the recovery and through the treatment process.”
At the Tooele City Planning Commission meeting on May 22, Dixon said the school building would undergo a full-scale remodel, including a resurface and repainting of the exterior. About five of the classrooms would be retained as group educational areas, while the majority would be converted into bedrooms at the facility, he said.
The school’s boiler would be removed and replaced with a new HVAC system and bathrooms would be added to meet the need of the facility, which could house up to 120 patients, separated by gender, according to Dixon. Security would be at the facility 24 hours per day, he said.
Detox and other acute medical situations would be handled at different facilities, Dixon said. The school site would be for long-term patient stays for those looking to recover from addiction.
The planning commission forwarded a negative recommendation for the rezone on a split, 4-3 vote during the May 22 meeting.
City Councilman Scott Wardle asked about the nature of those treated at the facility, whether it would be a voluntary program or if they would be court-mandated to attend.
“I think the concern is, from the public … that it doesn’t become a revolving door for those that may be in court mandated treatment and going down the street and using, then coming back,” Wardle said.
Dixon said patients for the treatment program are evaluated for their desire to participate willingly in the program, whether it’s voluntary or they have a court-mandated requirement. He said those in the former elementary school would receive residential and transitional care at the facility over the span of three to nine months.
Several residents spoke about concerns with the facility, while others expressed support for a rehabilitation center, with some recovering addicts themselves.
Resident Jamie Lawless said she is concerned about people leaving the facility and coming to her nearby home. She said she has seen two men shoot up drugs right outside her home before.
“I’m in definite opposition of this happening to my neighborhood,” Lawless said. “For them to bring their community to my community, where I’ve lived for 30 years.”
Resident Andy Stetz said he’s worked with drug addicts and alcoholics for the past 34 years after completing a recovery program himself. He said he saw the drug rehabilitation program as an opportunity for Tooele, especially those who can’t afford expensive treatment options.
“Every family has experienced, somewhere in there, somebody in trouble,” Stetz said. “Where do you take them to? … All of a sudden here, there’s hope. That’s what I see here.”
The concerns included the effect on property value, possible increase in criminal complaints associated with the facility, and people voluntarily leaving the rehab program, then using drugs in the neighborhood.
Council Chairman Steve Pruden said finding a tenant for the empty school building alleviated a possible concern.
“We have a concern about a building that has now been, for over a year, vacant and what can happen in vacant buildings,” Pruden said.
The City Council voted unanimously to approve the rezone on a motion from Wardle, seconded by City Councilman Brad Pratt.
Following the vote, Pratt offered an explanation for his affirmative vote, identifying the same concern as Pruden about criminal activity in empty buildings and the need for drug rehabilitation resources in the community.
“I believe there’s residents in that neighborhood that I live in that need this type of service in our community,” Pratt said. “They do. But I believe those exist in all the neighborhoods in our community to a certain extent.”