Land use changes recommended for New Life rehab farm

Land use changes recommended for New Life rehab farm

Land use changes recommended for New Life rehab farm

After more than an hour of emotional public testimony, the Pershing County Planning Commission voted 4 to 1 in favor of land use changes and a special use permit for New Life USA, a controversial drug addiction rehabilitation facility opposed by a number of nearby residents but supported by others.

Opponents told the commission that the work farm has already threatened homeowners’ security and property values in the nearby Rocky Canyon Estates. The New Life USA facility is about a mile north of the residential area and about a mile south of the Humboldt River Ranch Association at Rye Patch.

New Life staff and former clients, along with a few Pershing County residents, spoke in favor of the facility. Work farm residents say the program has helped a number of clients overcome addiction and local residents said the Christian-based drug rehabilitation program is needed in Pershing County.

The non-profit group already operates an addiction treatment facility in Missouri. Clients will come to the New Life work farm for their final rehabilitation only after they have overcome addiction at the drug treatment program in Missouri, according to New Life President Sergei Matevosian.

The commission tabled the New Life application in July after a similar barrage of public input over the controversial facility. The delay gave commissioners a chance to visit the work farm where building renovations, new construction, farming and ranching have been underway since 2016.

The zoning and parcel map changes will switch four acres of the 159-acre farm from AMR (Agricultural, Mining and Recreation) to LDS (Low Density Suburban) allowing for construction of a new dormitory. New Life could apply for future zoning and parcel changes to expand the housing.

According to the application, the dormitory and mobile homes will house up to 11 clients and 13 staff members. New Life members already living at the farm include men, women and children.

Some of the residents say they are New Life graduates who decided to stay on as volunteers to help new clients recover their lives through religion and hard work. Clients work for free but they are learn trades and skills in construction, mechanics, farming, livestock, gardening, cooking and housekeeping.

The county commission has the final say on the master plan amendment for the zoning and parcel map changes but the planning commission had the final say on the special use permit, according to District Attorney Bryce Shields. However, all three items are needed for the rehab facility to operate, he said.

Emotional Testimony

Rocky Canyon resident Jack Arries said he’ll continue to spearhead the community’s opposition to the rehab program and has circulated a petition against it signed so far by more than 30 other residents. The document reads “Petition for ‘New Life’ Rehab Center. We do not want this in our area!”

“I’ve been involved in dealing with people with drug and alcohol problems for close to 19 years, both at the prison and the sheriff’s department,” Arries said. “There’s a number of things that concern me. One of the things is they are going to have no control over them. We know they will walk off as they already have. One was gone for three weeks and they weren’t supposed to have anyone at that time anyway.”

A violent offender walked away last year after he was sent to the work farm rather than back to jail or prison by Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Mike Montero. After his arrest in Pershing County for a probation violation and treatment at the local hospital, he ended up back in the Humboldt County Jail.

“If they (New Life) have problems with these people, they have no phones, no money, no anything,” Arries said. “If there are problems, they are allowed to kick them out for two weeks. Well, where do you think they are going to go and what do you think are they going to do in those two weeks?”

Along with New Life residents and former clients, a few Pershing County residents spoke in favor of the drug and alcohol rehab program including Rye Patch Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tom Helm.

Addicts who stay clean for a year want to avoid relapse, stay out of trouble and be productive, he said.

“Last time, I stated I was 14 years clean,” Helm said. “I did a little reading on property values. Jack is right that property values go down in cities and towns but we’re in a rural area. Why don’t we reach out to those who want help instead of turning our backs on them?”

Another local resident told the board she wished there had been a drug rehab program like New Life in the community when she was struggling to overcome her addiction to heroin. A program is still needed for those who want to end addiction, a problem that is not so uncommon in Pershing County, she said.

“I’ve been clean for almost four years,” she said. “I wish there had been a place like this that I could have went to. I had to do it on my own. I’ve worked hard at it. If you open people’s cupboards, you’d find out there’s a lot more addicts out there than people realize. I think this would be a great thing for the community and for those people who are screaming for help and can’t get it.”

Humboldt River Ranch resident Carolyn Hultgren supports the board’s vote in favor of New Life.

“I’m glad to hear about the decision because it’s not what the opponents have said,” she said. “I don’t have any concerns about the New Life facility. It’s not a jail and they don’t put law violators there.”

Sheriff Jerry Allen said he’s had no new calls about the work farm but it’s too early for him to judge the rehab program. If it’s approved and becomes fully operational, he will coordinate with New Life staff regarding nearby residents’ concerns, security policies and law enforcement services, he said.

“Would a drug rehab facility be nice for this county? It would but is this necessarily the one, I don’t know. When they get their operational plan, I’d like to go over it with them and see what assistance they’ll need and what kind of security plans they have in place,” Allen said. “I think it’s very important that we work together if they’re going to have people out there with the potential for any illegalities.”

Community Concerns

Andy Benolkin was the lone planning commissioner to vote no the three New Life items. As a real estate agent, Benolkin said a drug rehab farm is not a good selling point for the community and he predicted it could be a drain on emergency services outside areas zoned for those county services.

“It’s like a commercial development in the way it impacts the services,” he said. “I don’t like seeing it outside of the commercial area. I know they are saying they are going to be self-sufficient but so did the people 30 years ago in Grass Valley.”

Planning Commissioner Carl Clinger, who made the motions in favor of New Life, said he investigated the work farm and talked with staff, residents and former clients before deciding to support it.

“I think it’s going to be very beneficial to not only the residents but to the community,” Clinger said. “The people that are out there now, and I talked to over nine or ten of them, are all graduates but they didn’t leave. They could leave, they could go anywhere but they were so appreciative of what they got from New Life that they volunteered to stay and work for free.”

The non-profit group’s ability to operate without government funds was a factor in Clinger’s decision.

“I’m impressed with the fact that they’re not using tax dollars. Their facilities are first rate and they’ve got a very nice shop,” he said. “There was a guy running a lathe, a guy repairing small engines and they were working on a big dump truck. They’re learning trades and are going to be productive citizens.”

After the votes, Benolkin explained his opposition to the New Life USA drug rehabilitation facility.

“I think that in the future, the county is going to regret this decision,” he said. “I think it will have a negative impact on the county in many ways as far as cost of services and the impact of what is eventually going to end up out in that area because of what was started here today. Just my opinion.”