Almanac

Viewpoint - December 4, 2013

Editorial: Neighbors see fire hazard in new facility

Representatives of a proposed drug and alcohol rehabilitation center on Skyline Boulevard in unincorporated Woodside found out recently how strongly neighbors feel about fire danger and other issues they fear could come with the conversion of what is now a 6-plus-acre center for meditation and yoga.

During a lively public hearing before the San Mateo County Planning Commission two weeks ago, it became clear that the county planning staff, which had signed off on the conversion of the Stillheart Institute to the Stillpath Recovery Center, had overlooked neighborhood concerns. The big concern: risk of wildfire caused by persons in recovery who smoke and might take it upon themselves to stroll off the center's grounds and into the woodsy premises at 16350 Skyline Blvd.

The Sausalito-based rehabilitation company behind Stillpath's application is hoping to receive an amended use permit to take over the site for use as a holistic rehabilitation center for up to 50 clients now and 76 when other buildings are completed. (Stillpath is not related to Stillheart.)

Stillpath officials on Nov. 20 faced a barrage of questions from neighbors gathered in the Kings Mountain Community Center about what precautions would be taken to guard against an accidental fire set by cigarettes tossed carelessly away by residents in their recovery programs.

The neighbors "live and breathe" fire prevention, one community member said, and were adamant about how important it is to guard against wildfire along Skyline Boulevard.

Stillpath consulting psychologist Dr. Brigitte Lank said there will be designated areas and times for smoking, but such promises were not enough.

"You're not understanding our concern about forest fires," said Joe Rockmore, who dismissed such rule-making. "Addicts are not going to listen to you," he said.

"If you cannot physically constrain them from trespassing and smoking (outside the designated area) then you haven't addressed the fundamental question," another neighbor said.

Until the word got out, Stillpath's application to replace Stillheart may have flown under the radar of Skyline residents. The facility now has 26 guestrooms (14 in the main lodge and 12 in adjoining tree houses) and 57 beds. Stillpath plans to complete work on several other tree houses, which would bring the total to 81 beds.

Most of the county's staff report focuses on environmental stipulations that must be followed for any construction or trail work that is done. After intense questioning by neighbors, Stillpath officials admitted that the minimal staffing impacts claimed in the original proposal were incorrect and would be revised soon. The original document said six full-time and six part-time staff would serve up to 76 clients who would be bused to the facility.

Other issues raised concerned heavy demands on the area's limited resources, including fresh water, and the distance from medical help should a Stillpath resident need immediate assistance.

A final decision on the application could be made Dec. 11 at the Planning Commission's next meeting, although Stillpath still needs to adequately explain procedures to rein in the clients who smoke. Water conservation plans and emergency evacuation procedures should also accompany an updated application.

It is time for the county to make sure any new user of this property can do so safely and in conjunction with practices used by neighbors who have kept this Skyline neighborhood fire-free for many years.

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