- By Dan Veaner
The Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County announced in February 2019 that it had secured a site that will be the first in Tompkins County to provide open access addiction treatment services seven days a week, including a 40-bed medically supervised detox and stabilization unit. 'The Council' officials say that befor buying the building they specifically confirmed with the then Village of Lansing Code Enforcement Officer that their plan is an allowed use under the Village zoning ordinance. But the project hit a snag last month when current Code Enforcement Officer Michael Scott ruled that the project is a 'hospital', which is not an allowed use. 'The Council' officials say they plan to fight the designation.
"The point is we were given this funding because we're not a hospital," says Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County Executive Director Angela Sullivan, MPA, MAIR. "And it's a lot of money. We were granted a great deal of money because the need was great. They looked at Tompkins County and this particular site and said, yes, we are going to fund this organization to do this project and that location."
The 19,420 square foot building near the corner of Triphammer and Graham Roads, has been open for business as an outpatient facility since The Council leased the building with an option to buy. The plan is to convert the building's second floor into a 40-bed detox for adults who have been assessed to have mild to moderate substance use disorders. Outpatient services will continue on the ground floor.
The Council has a lot at stake, because with an early assurance that their plan was an approved use they have already spent $5 million, including the purchase of the 2353 N. Triphammer Road building, after exercising their option to buy. The bulk of that money comes from the New York State Department of Health and Office of Addiction Services grants, which Sullivan says were specifically awarded because the State saw the need for The Council's service and approved of the location.
"We wouldn't have signed the lease in 2018 if we were not considered an approved use. We ruled out place after place after place where there was going to be a zoning fight. We looked at 44 sites. And we were told this was the best site. It was an approved use with maybe a special permit. We were even told we might not even need a special permit to do this."
That was before Scott was hired as Code Enforcement Officer. He said that he doesn't have a vote on whether or not projects are given a special permit. He said his role is to provide facts to the Planning Board to aid in their decision, and defended his determination.
"You could take a look at the definition of a hospital in Webster's dictionary, and it may not reflect anything of what you plan on doing, but I don't really have that luxury to do that," Scott explained. "I had to take a look at the Village code and the definitions that I have in front of me, and best categorize what I'm hearing and what I'm reading and what I'm seeing somewhat pigeonholed into a certain definition that I feel fits the best. How I do this is how it categorize us. It's no different with your special permit than I do with anyone else's special permit. I do not look at public view that makes no difference to me. I do not put my personal feelings into categorization. It's basically in black and white and how I feel it fits into a certain definition."
Sullivan argues that the facility will bring many benefits to Tompkins County as well as, specifically, to the Village, including 35 new jobs on top of 25 current employees. She says she knows there is a stigma to a rehab facility coming into a neighborhood, but the organization has been 'nothing but open about the project and how it will work for the past two years. She addressed neighborhood concerns from the beginning, including in a Lansing Star interview in March of 2019.
"The intent of this was positive," she says. "We're bringing a stability to that core in the village. There is so much for rent there, and so many empty places. We are bringing thirty-five people who potentially would utilize services and who are going to maybe want to live closer to home, closer to where they work and buy a home or rent an apartment. The list goes on and on and on where we're a positive addition to the community, you know, just like any other doctor's office would be."
Sullivan says the proposed facility is more akin to a temporary assisted living facility than to a hospital. She notes that the CEO of Cayuga Addiction in Trumansburg spoke on behalf of the project, saying it is not a hospital and noting that her similar facility is not considered to be a hospital. Cayuga Medical Center President and CEO Doctor Marty Stallone also testified to the Village that the proposal does not make it a hospital.
"As the guardian of the sole community hospital, I don't see this as a hospital facility," Stallone said. "It is not licensed as such. The level of care provided would not be appropriate to be classified as a hospital. We do work in close coordination with ADC to fluidly get patients where they need to be, but the ER, and even our inpatient units, aren't the right place for these individuals. In summary. I think it would be in the best interest of healthcare and the County. My understanding is there would not be an application in the future for hospital services. And I've been assured that that is not the case. Given that, and given what we're talking about, it is a badly needed service."
The Council is left with two options, both involving the Village Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). The first is to ask the board to overturn Scott's ruling. The second is to ask the BZA to classify the project as a 'special use', after which they would go back to the Planning Board for a special use permit.
Sullivan says that in the interest of moving the project forward The Council will petition the BZA for both options. If neither is granted The Council's attorney would evaluate what, if any, options remain.
"I can tell you without a doubt, my worst case scenario is that this becomes a legal battle. That's the worst case scenario for everybody. That's the worst case scenario for the Village, and the worst case scenario for us. And more importantly, it's the worst case scenario for the people we need to serve," Sullivan says.
The matter will go before the Village of Lansing ZBA at its December 15th meeting.