Fear of wildfire permeated the room of the Kings Mountain Community Center on Wednesday, Nov. 20, as residents in communities along Skyline Boulevard gathered to weigh in on a proposed drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility nearby, where clients would be allowed to smoke as they try to put their dependencies behind them. The area is a dense dry woodland that hasn't seen a major fire in decades.
A Sausalito-based rehabilitation center for addiction and substance-abuse recovery has applied to the San Mateo County Planning Commission for an amended use permit to convert a forested meditation center at 16350 Skyline Blvd. into a residential rehab facility. The commission next meets on Wednesday, Dec. 11.
The Stillpath Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation Center is applying to take over, but not expand, the 13-building facilities of the Stillheart Institute. Stillpath would offer a holistic approach to rehabilitation, including yoga, massage, spiritual counseling and 12-step programs, the staff report says.
Neighbors, noting that meditation clients not infrequently got lost in the woods and had to be guided back, wanted to know why rehab clients wouldn't do the same, except in possession of cigarettes. Dr. Brigitte Lank, a psychologist consulting on behalf of Stillpath, said there will be designated areas and times for smoking and that the clients will be issued firm instructions to stay on the grounds. Trespassing on neighboring properties would be grounds for dismissal.
"If you cannot physically constrain them from trespassing and smoking (outside of the designated area), then you haven't addressed the fundamental question," said a neighbor.
"I don't want somebody walking off into the woods and starting a fire," said another. "I want to see procedures in place to prevent a fire."
"You're not understanding our concern about forest fires," said Joe Rockmore. "Addicts are not going to listen to you."
"I hear your concern," Dr. Lank replied, a phrase she used many times during the evening.
"It's not a concern, it's a reality," Mr. Rockmore said.
Francoise Bourzat, a neighbor and a psychologist who said she has experience working with addicts, said that people giving up addictions nearly always smoke to compensate. Why couldn't they be required to use e-cigarettes, she asked.
"That's a personal choice," Dr. Lank replied.
"I think the bottom line here is that we want this to be a nonsmoking facility," another neighbor said.
In an interview, former Kings Mountain Community Association president Kathy Kennedy-Miller described a neighborhood centered around a volunteer fire department and a community "that lives and breathes fire protection."
The department recently received a check for $400,000 from the proceeds of several Kings Mountain annual art fairs. "We volunteer at the art fair because we all know what we're doing: raising money for fire protection," Ms. Kennedy-Miller said.
A list of concerns
In 90 minutes of unrelenting and generally harsh questioning, smoking was one of a list of neighbors' concerns:
■ The original proposal to the Planning Commission claimed minimal traffic impacts with six full-time and six part-time staff for as many as 76 clients, none of whom would have vehicles. But under intense questioning by the residents on staff-to-client ratios, Stillpath representatives admitted the original ratios were inaccurate. Accurate numbers would be available before the end of November, they said.
■ At maximum capacity of clients and staff, Stillpath would place an unprecedented 22,000-gallons-a-day demand on the fresh water supply in a system not designed for that kind of load, one neighbor said. He described daily instances of "zero" water pressure when the meditation center, with its smaller population, fills its tank. Stillpath representatives disputed the level of demand and noted that the facility has its own sewage treatment equipment and will recycle non-potable water.
■ At a fee of $45,000 a month, what if Stillpath is not able to fill its beds with at-will clients? Would they take in clients ordered into treatment by the government? Not without an amendment to its use permit, said J.R. Rodine, a former San Mateo County planning commissioner who is representing Stillpath.
■ The facility has no helicopter landing zone, the fire station is a mile and a half away, an ambulance or sheriff's deputy is typically 30 minutes away, and the hospital is an hour away, neighbors said. "The clients are already in trouble and seeking help. They are a medical disaster waiting to happen," said a neighbor. That won't be the case, Dr. Lank said. Physical exams will be given before admission and clients with significant medical problems will not be admitted, she said.
■ Why not build it somewhere else, one neighbor wanted to know. Dr. Lank replied that the remote and scenic environment in the woods is a get-away and an aid to inner healing and self reflection.