Board: Rezone for sober living

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 21, 2014

Florala’s Zoning Board voted 4-2 in favor of rezoning property at 582 Fifth St. for mult-use, meaning what is known as the Gitenstein estate can become a sober living facility if the city council agrees with the board next month.

But board members listened for more than an hour as members of a standing-room-only crowd asked questions and expressed concerns about the proposed facility. Twelve of the 21 who spoke loudly opposed the change.


Gabriela Engels of Iconsulting, Inc. plans the sober living facility as part of her development of a drug and alcohol recovery facility with the former Florala Memorial Hospital as its center. The former hospital will be renovated and used for detox and inpatient care, and should open in May. The Sober Living home will house up to 15 men and two house managers.

Engels, who took questions at the meeting, explained that residents of the home must be clean a minimum of six months before they are eligible to move into the residential facility. Additionally, they will be drug tested twice each week, have a curfew, and strict house rules. Violation of the rules means immediate removal from the program.

Most of the 12 who opposed the rezoning agreed the program will be a good one, but didn’t want a multi-residential home in their neighborhood. John Wallace was the first to speak in opposition.

“I live right across the street from Seymour’s house,” he said. “The project is laudatory and good, but this is a residential neighborhood. I have a home that will decrease in value by a large percentage. I would support it, but not in a residential neighborhood.”

Kevin Bryan, who also lives in the neighborhood, said, “I absolutely do not want it. No. 1, because of what it is, and No. 2, I don’t want it rezoned. I don’t want a gas station on one side and you on the other.”

Others expressed concerns that people in the residential home would be “walking the streets” and would be violent.

Engels explained that those who seek help at Serendipity Healthy Living Community will not be court-ordered participants, but will be there because they want to overcome their addictions. Clients will be private-pay, or private insurance pay. The facility will not accept Medicaid or Medicare.

She is, however, establishing a scholarship program for local residents who want help but can’t afford it.

Florala native Charles Smith, who owns Florala Pharmacy, spoke in favor of the zoning change.

“Nobody can guarantee anybody’s safety. My father was robbed and murdered right across the street,” he said, nodding toward Ed Smith’s Filling Station. “If you want to see drugs in Florala, come in my pharmacy or go in the dollar stores.

“Most of the patients will be from out of town,” he said. “It breaks my heart to see Florala. Florala is a dying town. We’re not dead, but we’re dying. Anything that will help the economy and bring jobs, we should be support.

“This could be the thing that turns Florala around,” he said.

Sara Goolsby, administrator of Florala Health and Rehab, agreed.

“I want y’all to take a look at who’s roaming our streets already,” she said. “These are people who want to be helped. I did a little research. People who go to facilities like this are movie stars, lawyers and doctors. They will spend big money to come get helped. If you want to be worried about drug issues, walk up and down the street a little bit. The people you need to worry about is your neighbor.”

Goolsby said at the nursing home, she sees the traffic an inpatient facility creates for the small town.

“People from all over the United States come into that nursing home to visit,” she said. “They buy gas, eat, and stay and the bed and breakfasts. They come regularly to visit. That’s income for this town.

“I’m saying, ‘Y’all, this town needs something,’ she said. “We don’t have any jobs. We need to support this woman who wants to come here to help us.”

City councilwoman Ann Eason, who also sits on the zoning board, said, “Y’all are worried about security? If we don’t get businesses in Florala, we’re not even going to have a police department.

“We should be embracing her coming, not tearing her down. This is all a win-win to me in Florala,” she said. “What do we learn in church? Love thou neighbors. Be kind to them. We all need to embrace this.”

Judy Burton also reminded those gathered of scripture.

“I’m chemically dependent on nicotine and caffeine,” she said. “They are both considered drugs. They’re not as harsh as alcohol, prescription, or illegal drugs.

“Living in the Bible Belt, so many of us are Christians,” she said. “We need to remember what it says in the Matthew. ‘What you do the least of my brethren, you also do to me.’

“The people who are coming here are bringing money, also. It costs big bucks to go to private facilities,” she said.

Mayor Robert Williamson, who also sits on the zoning board, was traveling on business and unable to attend. His wife, Lynn, read his statement in favor of the local facilities.

The Florala City Council will make a final decision after a zoning hearing set for 6 p.m. on Mon., March 24.