Florala Council votes 4-2; sober living facility zoning gets OK

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, March 25, 2014


The Florala City Council voted 4-2 to rezone the Gitenstein estate on Fifth Street as mixed use, allowing a sober living facility to be put in place there.

Gabriela Engels of Iconsulting Inc. plans the sober living facility as part of her development of a drug and alcohol recovery facility, Serendipity Healthy Living Community, with the former Florala Memorial Hospital as its center.

“The intention here is to give people a chance to heal,” Engels said. “Florala is a beautiful place for them to be able to do that.”

Twenty-five local residents attended a public hearing prior to the council meeting, and unlike at a zoning board public hearing in February, slightly more people spoke in favor of the zoning than against it. The Planning and Zoning Board recommended the zoning change to the council despite initial loud protests against it.

Gwen Martin was among the proponents.

“I live a half mile away, and I don’t have a problem with it,” she said. “We need to educate our children about what it is. Some of the people who are worried, you need to realize there is already low income housing three blocks from your house. If you don’t think there are drugs there, you’re wrong. If you don’t think there are alcoholics there, you’re wrong.”

“Fear is what is holding this entire community back,” Martin said. “It’s fear of change.”

Zoning Board chairwoman Sue Mathis, who moderated the last public hearing but took no position then, spoke in favor of the facility, addressing specifically concerns that the facility would house criminals and that it would negatively affect property values. Several people expressed concerns that the facility will house pedophiles, despite repeated assurances from Engels that those who enter the program must pass background checks.

“I would like to say I live two miles from four-way stop. I have been broken in to four times. We will not be any less safe with Gabi’s institution next door to me,” she said. “All of us here have a family member or have had a family member who has had an addiction. I doubt any of those were murderers or rapists.

“To me, property values in Florala have fallen, because so many structures are growing up and falling down,” Mathis said. “There are no jobs, and no healthcare facilities. Those things will keep someone from coming here and buying property quicker than this will.”

Mathis said she contacted District Attorney Walt Merrell, who also serves on the board of Crossover Ministries in Opp, and asked if that board faced opposition when it was located.

“He said, yes, people had concerns. But there has not been one incident involving anyone with Crossover Ministries.

“As far as pedophiles, people molesting children, more times than not, when that happens, it is a family member or a friend of a family member,” Mathis said. “I see more good coming from this than I do harm.”

Councilwoman Hazel Lee also addressed the concerns.

“I’m concerned that people are concerned about pedophiles,” she said. “A pedophile can be anybody. It could be an addict. It could be a priest, a teacher, or your brother.

“I’m not convinced about property values go down,” she said. “Facilities like this that take in stars, etc., I can bet you the property values around them are extremely high.

“(Ms. Engels) has already expressed the type of facility she will run will house people voluntarily paying for rehab,” Lee said. “We should all want that to happen. I can’t see any strong arguments against it.”

Councilman Marvin Williford and Councilwoman Deborah Inabinett voted against the zoning change.

Williford asked Engels why the council “didn’t see her” before she purchased and renovated the house.

“I fell in love with your community three years ago,” she said. “I purchased the house prior to anything.

Inabinett said she felt she had to listen to the majority of the residents in her district, who opposed the zoning change