ST. GEORGE – Vandals struck a proposed residential drug and alcohol recovery center in the Bloomington community of St. George on Wednesday night, damaging both the home, as well as a trailer belonging to a contractor hired to help remodel the home.
While residential drug and alcohol treatment centers are rarely greeted with open arms when they first appear in a community, in Bloomington, opposition may have crossed the line from civil dissent into malicious destruction of property. In Payson, a similar residential facility is owned and managed by the same people, yet every neighbor that St. George News spoke with said that their worries vanished as they soon began to view the residents of the facility as neighbors rather than interlopers.
The Bloomington house is currently undergoing renovation into an eight-bedroom residential facility. It has recently been the subject of controversy ever since it was purchased by Steps Recovery Center in June.
Many residents in the neighborhood have held meetings to organize their efforts to stop the placement of the facility in the affluent community. The group swarmed a town hall style meeting with U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart last month and demanded that Mayor Dan McArthur and the city do something to stop it.
Residents had hoped that the city would deny the zoning variances that the center needed to operate the 24-bed facility originally planned for the property.
Denying the variance would have likely violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides legal protection for residential treatment facilities. However, the owners of the recovery center sidestepped the city by limiting the facility to eight beds, which is already allowed under current zoning regulations.
Vandalism and mischief
Mike Jorgensen, co-founder of Steps Recovery Center, said he worries the vandalism might represent an escalation in the neighbors’ efforts to stop the facility from opening in December.
“It’s all over the sides of the building,” Jorgensen said. Police described the chemical that the vandals sprayed as a foamy substance which has left long, discolored streaks across the stucco siding of the house. Jorgensen said he believes that the entire house will now need to be repainted, which he expects could cost more than $2,000.
A contractor’s trailer was also damaged by the vandals. “They sprayed (the chemical) right across the phone number,” Jorgensen said. “It’s bubbling the paint on the trailers.”
“It’s unfortunate that there are still a few in the neighborhood who are resorting to childish actions,” Jorgensen said. However, he said he did not want the entire neighborhood to be judged by the actions of a few. “I’m grateful for the support of the majority of the community,” he said. “I’ve received a lot of phone calls and people reaching out with apologies for the behavior of their neighbors.”
On Oct. 6, Jorgensen said that the night watchman chased away trespassers after he overheard people prowling around the the yard late at night. “He overheard somebody talking about burning the house down,” Jorgensen said. He filed a police report, but he said that police have not yet identified the prowler.
A week later, the same night watchman chased away a group of teenagers who were strewing toilet paper across the property. One of the kids dropped his cell phone as he ran, Jorgensen said. It was soon discovered that one of the pranksters was the son of Warren Church, a vocal leader of resistance efforts in the neighborhood.
“One of the other boys called and apologized to me,” Jorgensen said. “He told me that one of the parents had put him up to it.” Jorgensen asked the boy if it was Church who told them to toilet paper the trees. The boy was silent for a few seconds, Jorgensen said, before telling him that he didn’t want to say who put them up to it.
“That’s a complete lie,” Church said, denying that he had anything to do with the boys’ decision to target the recovery center. “My kid told me that they chose that location because it was a big property and it had a lot of low-hanging trees.”
Church said that he reprimanded his son. “They went and cleaned it up,” he said. “There was zero property damage. These are teenagers who are 15 to 16 years old. They’re not engaged in drugs or sex or alcohol, but just looking for a little bit of safe adventure.”
Church said that he regrets the vandalism that occurred to the house last Wednesday night. “I have had nothing to do with any vandalism on his property,” he said. “Whoever did that definitely crossed the line. I would be furious if that happened on my property. That’s serious destruction. It’s going to cost somebody serious money to fix it.”
Many of the neighbors are quite angry, Church said.
“It doesn’t surprise me that somebody would want to take matters into their own hands,” he said. He recalled that, at a meeting held in August, audience members discussed harassing the contractors who were hired to remodel the house. “I remember the hostility of somebody in the crowd who wanted to know the name and number of the contractors,” he said.
At the Aug. 2 meeting at Bloomington Elementary, Church had the microphone when the discussion turned to harassing the contractors. Church responded by saying that it wasn’t an appropriate course of action for the group they were forming. “That would have to be a personal agenda for you,” he said.
“I myself have heard a lot of upset people,” Church said, “talking about what they wish they could do and what they want to do. I am a grown adult and I know the law and what he is doing is not worth a felony.”
Jorgensen has placed a sign in front of the house offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who vandalized the property. Warren Church and other neighbors have said that the sign is in violation of city code and they want it removed.
“He has an illegal sign posted in his yard, which a code enforcement officer will tell him to remove or he’ll get fined,” Church said, arguing that the sign is technically advertising a business. “Mike Jorgensen is trying to pay the community,” he said, “he’s offering a reward to the citizens of the neighborhood to watch the property. It’s illegal.”
The Bloomington residents have asked the city to force Jorgensen to take down the sign, Church said. “Somebody in our neighborhood sent an email to the mayor,” he said. “The mayor replied, ‘yes, I see this as a problem. We will send out code enforcement officers right away.’” Church said that he had a copy of the email but that Bob Cheek was the neighbor who sent it.
The sign reflects poorly on the neighborhood, Cheek said, where homes routinely sell for more than a half-million dollars. “There’s a $500 reward sign. How does that make the neighborhood look?” he asked.
“It makes it seem like we have vandalism in the neighborhood.” Cheek said that yes, he did send the email, and that McArthur said that he would take care of the problem.
The city did look into the report, Assistant to the City Manager, Marc Mortensen said.“We had a call from the mayor to go check out what a neighbor or resident reported — what they thought was an illegal sign,” he said. “So we sent our code enforcement officers out there to take pictures. (The legal department) reviewed it and we can find nothing in violation with the sign.”
The challenge to his reward sign wasn’t the first encounter Jorgensen has had with the code enforcement division. After his night-security officer chased people off the property twice in one week, Jorgensen reported the incidents to the police. The next day, he said, his attorney received an email from the City of St. George Deputy City Attorney, Paula Houston.
ED. CORRECTION / CLARIFICATION (Nov. 2, 2013): This report as first published erroneously stated, above, that Jorgensen said that the next day he was called by City Attorney Shawn Guzman. To correct and clarify: Jorgensen said that the next day his attorney, Gary Kuhlmann, received an email from Deputy City Attorney Paula Houston concerning the matter of someone living on the property. The man then residing on the property was paid for caretaking services, Jorgensen said on Nov. 2, and was not charged rent or given board in exchange for services.
“The city attorney (see Ed. clarification above) contacted me and told me that I’ve got to get my security guy out of the house,” Jorgensen said. “They say I need to have a rental license for him to stay here.” Jorgensen said he feels like he is in a no-win situation.“So the city can’t catch the guy who sprayed the house, they can’t catch the guy who threatened to burn it down, but they are going to tell me I can’t have a security guy on the premises?”
It was Cheek who filed the complaint, Mortensen said, and when Jorgensen confirmed that the man who was living on the property was performing a service in return for board, the city had no choice but to take action. (See Ed. clarification above.)
“That’s considered rent,” Mortensen said.
“We never told them that they had to leave, but the city attorney told them that they would have to obtain a rental license,” he said. “This all occurred before we knew that a police report had been filed, so it was not in retaliation to anybody. We needed to investigate the complaint, and we found Mr. Jorgensen to be in violation.”
Jorgensen said that he has been through this before. The house in Bloomington will not be the first Steps Recovery Center location. Jorgensen and his partner, Christian Smith, opened their first residential recovery center in Payson in 2009. Jorgensen remembers that many residents in the Payson neighborhood shared some of the same concerns as those in Bloomington.
Faith Bingham lives right across the street from the Payson facility. “We were really concerned about it – I won’t say that we weren’t when we didn’t’ know anything about it,” she said. Bingham said that there haven’t been any issues at all. “My husband was the LDS bishop for this area and Mike Jorgensen would try to find service projects for his patients to do in the neighborhood, or for people that needed help.”
On snowy mornings, Bingham said, the residents at the facility are out in the street, shoveling the neighbors’ cars out of snow drifts.
At the house next door to the Payson treatment center, Chad Farr said that when the community discovered that a recovery center was coming to their neighborhood, they organized to try to stop it from opening.
“The other neighbors started a petition and wanted people to sign it because they didn’t want a drug rehabilitation facility right here,” he said, “but it’s not been a problem.”
In the four years it’s been open, Farr has lived right next door to the facility and he said he’s never even heard of the residents causing any issues. “They’re fine, you know? They are just people just like anybody else; they just have some problems,” he said, “but who doesn’t, honestly?“
“You can have good neighbors and bad neighbors anywhere,” Farr said, “and these people have always been good neighbors to me. They always wave. They’re just like neighbors; I’ve never feared for my kids’ safety.”
Another neighbor named Heather, who asked that her last name not be used, echoed the same sentiment as every immediate neighbor that was home when a St. George News reporter visited the neighborhood in September. “It’s not a big deal,” Heather said, “it’s not like you’re asleep in the middle of the night and they try and break into your house. That just doesn’t happen.”
A man named Coulson said he thinks that there is actually less crime in the immediate neighborhood surrounding the facility.
“At night time, the whole place is lit up,” Coulson said. The light isn’t so bright that it’s a nuisance, he said, but enough that you can see your yard clearly. “It’s like on a moonlit night,” he said.
“At least in our area, crime and stuff has gone down,” Coulson said.
Bingham said she thinks the people who opposed the facility — who acted before they really understood what it was — are motivated by an irrational fear. She said:
St. George News reporter Tracie Parry, contributed to this report from Payson. New from STGnews.com:
I know there is a fear factor because people have a stigma about what kind of people it will bring in, and how people are labeled, and what they feel drug addicts look like, and what type of people they are. These people that have been in this program have not been who we thought they would be. They’re just people trying to make their lives right again; and we haven’t felt it was a problem in any way at all. Except that we were frightened at first, also.
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