Aug. 30 2018 09:48 AM

Plans stall for using house at School for the Blind


Officials behind a proposed residential treatment facility will need to head back to the drawing board following resistance from would-be neighbors, an expired purchase agreement and a red light from City Council.

Residents in Lansing’s Walnut Neighborhood last month were irritated to discover Mid-Michigan Recovery Services had plans to renovate a former School for the Blind building on Pine Street into an expanded men’s treatment facility. Some contended it would be bound to attract undesirable people into the neighborhood.

A petition that sought to kill the deal tallied more than 100 signatures but an expired purchase agreement with the Ingham County Land Bank ultimately nixed the proposal regardless. And a request to rezone the property and for a special land use permit wasn’t even considered by Lansing’s Development and Planning Committee.

“This basically means we have to start over at step one and submit our purchase agreement over again,” said MMRS’ executive director, Jessica Lamson. “I can’t tell you whether we’re planning on moving forward now.”

The former Superintendent’s House, 1141 N. Pine St., remains listed for $299,900. MMRS in August offered to transform the space into a substance abuse treatment facility but first required a special land use permit and a shift to residential zoning.

MMRS officials last week took the request to the City Council but the purchase agreement — with a deadline of July 31 — had already expired by the time the zoning request made it to the table. Without a valid purchase agreement, MMRS didn’t have any right to pursue the request, officials decided. And the plans were stalled.

“We’re deeply in need,” Lamson added.

“There are residential needs out there for people struggling with substance abuse disorders. The whole state consistently runs with waiting lists on these places because there aren’t enough beds. We’re just trying to expand those services and fill a need in the community.”

A recently released report from Sparrow’s Department of Forensic Pathology indicates the region continues to struggle with opioid abuse as drug-related overdose deaths remain steady into the first half of 2018. At least 46 Ingham County residents have died from an accidental overdose so far this year, according to reports.

But solutions to the growing opioid epidemic are few and far between. Lamson said MMRS could seek another purchase agreement, but it would be sure to draw ire from the local neighborhood. Largely unfounded stigmas surrounding substance abuse are difficult to defeat, she said. Adding new services can be an uphill battle.

“People with substance abuse disorders are labeled as junkies or addicts,” Lamson added. “There’s a certain connotation that comes with that. There’s this stigma that suggests everyone who struggled with substance abuse has a criminal element to them. People are just intimidated by the unknown.”

Local resident Kris Reader wrote another facility “dumping on” his neighborhood would cause drug dealers to gravitate to the area and almost certainly spell an increase in criminal activity. Others claimed they were sexually harassed by patients from a nearby facility. Another man said a recovering alcoholic asked him to buy him booze.

And perhaps Rina Risper’s sabre has been rattling the loudest. The publisher of The New Citizens Press newspaper helped organize the petition efforts and previously claimed her opposition wasn’t about any perceived stigmas but was instead focused on striking a balance within her neighborhood.

She claimed another residential facility would be one too many within her neighborhood, citing the now-shuttered Lansing Teen Challenge building on Willow Street. State records, however, indicate that facility hasn’t been licensed to operate in years.

Risper has since declined to elaborate further on the topic.

“It just seems like we could do better with our choices for what we put over there,” said Walnut Neighborhood Association President Dale Schrader. “I’m trying to stay neutral here, but I just wish it was something better than that. In the past, it seemed like people looked at this neighborhood like some kind of a ghetto or something.”

Addiction treatment professionals said debates like those on Pine Street are all too familiar. Dani Meier, chief clinical officer for Mid-State Health Network, previously said widespread “not-in-my-backyard” mentalities surrounding substance abuse treatment often hinder the introduction of new residential programs.

“Some of this hesitation or resistance was certainly in regards to some neighborhood rumblings,” added Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing. “The Land Bank is torn between being a simple property owner with the fiduciary responsibility to derive money from these properties and those bigger public policy issues.”

Other local residents who opposed the facility — including Risper and Ingham County Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw — gathered at the recent committee meeting to voice their concerns. Crenshaw suggested MMRS had misrepresented the amount of community feedback officials had gathered before pushing the proposal forward.

Lamson insisted she and her staff have reached out for months to neighborhood groups, hosted community meetings and tried to solicit public input as plans solidified. She’s not sure how much more could have been done to quell concerns from local residents, she said. MMRS had aimed to be “as transparent as possible.”

Studies to indicate crime increases when substance abuse facilities move into neighborhoods simply don’t exist. And there was no reason residents should’ve expected that to change with the introduction of another program, Lamson emphasized. Still, the damage may already have been done. No other purchase agreements are on the table.

Lamson said MMRS might consider looking at a different location but they’d be hard-pressed to find another building as suitable for residential treatment as the former Superintendent’s House. Officials there plan to meet in the coming weeks to decide their plan going forward. Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage.