By JOHN T. WARD
Shrewsbury officials have notified representatives of a new addiction-counseling center that a key aspect of the operation appears to conflict with local zoning law, redbankgreen has learned.
Five days after Governor Chris Christie got into a shouting match with protesters at the opening of the Seabrook House outpatient facility on White Street, borough Attorney Martin Barger confirmed the nonprofit has been told by letter that its plan for group counseling sessions is not permitted in the zone.
The letter from borough hall to the Bridgeton-based Seabrook had been widely rumored, but was not confirmed by town officials until Tuesday.
According to Barger, Seabrook’s application to conduct individual and family counseling services at the address was approved by the zoning office without the need for any variances in December.
But borough officials learned last week from signage and other materials published by Seabrook that group counseling would also be provided at the site, Barger told redbankgreen.
“Apparently, and this is all hearsay… these are lengthy sessions with lots of people, and that’s not something that has been permitted there,” he said. “That’s not a professional office. That’s something else. And the opinion of the zoning officer is that that requires a variance, and I agree with him.”
“It’s an overuse of the building, we believe,” he said.
Barger said he wrote to Seabrook’s attorney saying it would have to comply with the ordinance or seek a variance. No response had yet been received, he said.
Zoning officer David Cranmer did not respond to requests for information.
In a Facebook post, Councilman Erik Anderson wrote that the provision of group services “is a particular concern due to the size of the building and the limited parking available at the site.”
The two-story building, which has been vacant for some time, was previously used for individual counseling services. Located in the B1 business zone just off Broad Street, the structure is said in Monmouth County tax records to be 4,000 square feet in size. It has its own parking lot out back.
Seabrook president Ed Diehl could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon. But he said last week that if there were any outstanding issues with the borough, the company would address them.
He also told reporters he was confident that every aspect of the operation, including the group sessions, was made known to the zoning office when Seabrook filed its application to operate late last year.
Group sessions involve about eight patients at a time, with no more than two groups conducted at the same time, Diehl said, adding that the building has sufficient parking on-site for clients.
At the grand-opening ceremony last week, Christie clashed with protesters, deriding them as “ignorant” NIMBYs whose children would someday need the facility, given current trends in opiate abuse.
Neighbors contend the Shrewsbury facility is too close to the borough schools, located about 200 yards away. Bill Dodge, a former council president and police commissioner, was among the protesters.
“Several hundred kids walk by here every day, twice a day,” he told redbankgreen. “Are we supposed to treat this as an educational opportunity, to tell our children that it’s OK if you get addicted, you’ll be taken care of?”
Dodge said he was “proud” of Christie for making the opioid crisis a high priority, but astonished that his staff would permit him to attend the opening of a counseling center so close to a school.
Other objectors said they would not mind if the facility was elsewhere in town, but just not close to homes and the schools.
According to Diehl, a similar Seabrook outpatient facility in Northfield, in Atlantic County, is located across the street from an elementary school, and hasn’t had any adverse incidents in five years of operation.
Mayor Don Burden referred a reporter’s questions to Barger.