Palmer addiction treatment center comes as surprise to some locals

Published: Mar. 31, 2017 at 7:16 PM AKDT
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Especially recently, state agencies and other groups have been opening up more opportunities for treatment, including additional treatment centers.

But while most support the additional funding and facilities for addiction recovery, the latter does sometimes come as a surprise to area residents.

In Palmer, for example, many locals said they hadn't heard of a new treatment center - to be run by Set Free Alaska in an old charter school in the area - until just recently.

"As a neighbor, we would've really liked to have been told before now," said Erika Buswell, a resident in the immediate vicinity of the facility. "I'm feeling very uncomfortable about it."

Set Free Alaska is one of three recipients of grants from the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services. The money is set to help fund three separate addiction centers in three different communities in the Last Frontier. In Palmer, it's $250,000 going toward a 16-bed residential substance abuse disorder treatment program.

While Set Free Alaska has already purchased the old building, and does have the clearance to conduct operations inside of it, other residents also expressed concern. Locals cited lack of notification, safety issues, and the potential effects of such a facility on nearby property values as their main worries.

"We had to find out about this by doing some research on our own," said Erika Young, another resident living close to the building that was once a charter school. "This is our home, this is our investment. What is it going to do to our property value?"

Locals also said they fully support the improvement and addition of substance abuse treatment options, but were primarily frustrated with the lack of communication.

A representative for Set Free Alaska said Friday that along with all the proper permissions, the group was highly communicative to the local council of its intent to have a treatment center on the property. Channel 2 reached out to council members for comment, but were unable to make contact before air Friday evening.

In addition, because of the purpose behind the facility, Borough officials said, a notification to local residents was actually not required.

"There are permits people can just walk in and get," said Eileen Probasco, Dir. of Planning and Land Use for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. "Then there's a conditional use permit, in which they fill out an application.

"We process their request, and it goes through the planning commission, and if it's conditional, that's when there is a notification to surrounding property owners."

Set Free Alaska's application, which was cleared, did not "trip the thresholds to require that permit," Probasco said. Some of the activities that would end up in notification to nearby land owners would be excessive noise production, additional traffic, and anything involving hazardous waste.

Still, of all the neighbors who agreed to speak, support for eliminating Alaska's addiction epidemic was resounding.

"I think it needs to happen," Buswell said. "But if you are going to put a treatment center in, I would feel it would be best put in the middle of town where they could easily access it, or out in the middle of nowhere where there would be no influences to help them not stay clean."

As for the other recent grant recipients from DHSS, Central Peninsula General Hospital received $500,000 for a 6- to 8-bed withdrawal management and detox center, primarily for the Soldotna and Kenai communities.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference received $500,000 for a 12-bed sobering center in Fairbanks.