St. Lucie County commissioners administered two remedies last week in an effort to cope with the county’s substance abuse problems.
The commissioners approved plans for a 220-bed substance abuse treatment facility on State Road A1A on South Hutchinson Island.
The commissioners also agreed to try to join Fort Pierce’s initiative to retain several law firms in connection with claims against opioid manufacturers for the harm their products caused.
The commissioners voted unanimously for the controversial measures on May 7, disappointing many in the half-filled commission chamber.
“My heart wants to be with you and say ‘no’ to this project tonight,” Commissioner Cathy Townsend told the audience. “It is very scary if you don’t understand the illness. This is an illness that is in every single home and every single family and it affects every single one of us.”
“I do have to think about the bigger picture and the greater good,” Townsend said.
Index Investment Group of Jupiter plans to develop a $79 million substance abuse detox, treatment, rehabilitation and testing facility on a 22-acre site on A1A, about a half-mile south of Anacostia Place.
Four buildings totaling 214,288 square feet will be constructed on a five-acre portion of the site, county records show. Most of the rest of the property will be preserved, including nearly 13 acres of wetlands.
The architectural design will resemble a hotel, resort or condominium with open air terraces and balconies, records show. The two center buildings will be 42-feet tall and the two outer buildings will be 35-feet tall.
Atlantic Wellness anticipates hiring a staff of 216 workers, including doctors, therapists, nurses, administrators, clerks and facilities management employees, records show.
Total payroll will be $11 million per year, said Lee Dobbins, a lawyer representing Index Investment Group. The average wage will be $50,000 per year for non-physicians.
There will be five staff rooms for on-site accommodations for medical professionals.
The campus is intended to operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week with medical and clinical programs, records show. It will provide care for male and female adults and adolescents.
The Hutchinson Sands condominium project just north of the Atlantic Wellness site came out against the project, while the Sunset Beach single-family subdivision to the south expressed support.
At the start of the public hearing, Commission Chairwoman Linda Bartz held up a 2-inch-thick stack of emails from county residents to show the robust public interest in the Atlantic Wellness project.
“It’s simply the wrong location to put a large 220-bed hospital,” said Harold Melville, a lawyer representing three nearby condo and homeowners associations. “We’re talking about a predominantly single-family residential neighborhood.”
The proposed Atlantic Wellness facility is comparable in size to St. Lucie Medical Center in Port St. Lucie, Melville said.
Mary Duckworth of Ocean Village said facilities like the Atlantic Wellness Center should not be allowed to be built on the beaches of South Hutchinson Island.
“What kind of precedent does that set for future requests?” Duckworth asked. “What if it were to fail? What would we be left with?”
Dr. Scott Segal, a psychiatrist who will run the center, said its purpose is to provide high-level care in a naturally beautiful setting to help patients and their families recover from the ravages of substance abuse.
“It’s very difficult to find a place that is comprehensive, helpful and is on the cutting edge,” Segal said. “We want this to be the world-class facility for certainly the United States and maybe the world.”
“We’ve had addiction problems in this country for many, many years,” Segal said. “I’m not sure it’s getting worse, but the drugs are getting worse and more potent.”
“The more comprehensive the treatment the better chance you have to see somebody get off these drugs,” Segal said. “There is a tremendous need for it. I think we’ll be providing a great service to the community.”
Earlier during their May 7 meeting, the commissioners decided to look into joining Fort Pierce’s legal efforts to seek damages from companies that manufactured and distributed opioids.
There were 5,725 opioid-related deaths in Florida in 2016, an increase of 22 percent compared to 2015, a Florida Medical Examiners Commission report shows.
Fort Pierce commissioners agreed on March 18 to retain six law firms to pursue the litigation, city records show.
Fort Pierce’s legal team intends to pursue the claims for damages in federal court in the multi-district litigation in the Northern District of Ohio, city records show.
Bartz said she believes the best way to stop pharmaceutical companies from over-distributing opioids is to threaten their profits.
“This is in some ways much like the tobacco of the past, only this is killing our people younger,” Bartz said. “There are very few people that I have met that have not been affected. And it is horrendous how these drug companies manipulated people’s vulnerability.”