A community meeting might help air concerns and give neighbors a chance to ask questions about a proposed in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility for the intersection of Little Italy Road and Old Covington Hwy., said Parish Council Chairman Carlos Notariano.
Some neighbors were upset Monday night when they did not get the chance to speak their concerns at the Tangipahoa Parish Council meeting.
A community meeting might help, Notariano said. But in any case, parish officials must grant permits for any type of development that conforms to parish and state law regardless of neighbors’ sentiments, he said.
“Although it is the law that they must be permitted, I will make sure they stay in compliance. I will be there to address that and will do all I can to protect the quality of life and property values of those neighbors,” Notariano said Wednesday. “With no rural zoning, this is an example of what can happen.”
It’s an idea right now based on need, said the Rev. Henry “Hank” Groover, a Dominican friar associated with Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Hammond and Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church in Tickfaw. Hammond businessman Benny Latino is also a supporter involved with the project.
“The neighbors will not know they are there. They won’t know what’s going on on the other side of that fence. We are absolutely committed to being good neighbors,” said Groover.
The plan is to buy the nearly 10 acres at the corner of Little Italy Road and Old Covington Hwy. The oddly-shaped existing brick house is 146 yards long.
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A 501C3 non-profit corporation would be formed to finance a non-profit medical facility for long-term drug and alcohol treatment based on a 12-step spiritual approach that Groover said he hopes to make it interdenominational by inviting other clergy to take part.
“We can put faith into action and see how we can reach out and help, love and serve one another, especially the little ones,” Groover said.
Groover is himself a Katrina transplant and has spent the last three years reviewing the area’s needs.
“It seemed to me that there are very, very few services for the poor here. No shelter, no night shelter, no travelers aid, no drug and alcohol rehabilitation, no half way house for people getting out of prison,” Groover said. “That was fine when Hammond was a farming hamlet. But we are now pretty much on the crossroads between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I think the Northshore has been thrown into the real world whether it wanted to be or not. Some of these issues have been happily avoided. We can no longer pretend that’s the case.”
Indeed federal and state records show Tangipahoa Parish is a “hot spot” for youth alcohol abuse, according to a recent study. Personal experience is icing on an unfortunate cake.
“There is nobody who doesn’t know someone who has a problem with drugs or alcohol, whether it’s a son, a daughter, a cousin or a nephew. It crosses all borders and boundaries.”
A looming problem that will echo here as well will be the soldiers returning from duty in Afghanistan where the primary cash crop is opium.
“They expect in the next five years 350,000 service people will return with some kind of opiate dependency. They are not bringing back diamonds,” Groover said.
Though there will be a spiritual component to the treatment, the medical component will be very important, he said.
“I’m a Catholic priest. You can’t just read Psalm 23 and say, ‘Jesus make me quit drugs.’ I believe there must be a spiritual dimension to recovery, however, Jesus is not the one who got you on drugs,” Groover said.
His assurances aren’t selling some of the neighbors at this point, however.
“I just think that it should be some place else,” said Phyllis Vultera, who lives with her husband Sal Vultera Sr. on Little Italy Road. “This is a residential area. Why do it in a neighborhood that is so full of families with children? It’s just too close.”
Drug and alcohol problems are getting bad in Hammond, she acknowledged.
“I feel sorry for the people. I think they need a place like that,” Vultera said. “I just don’t think we need it here. We are very against it.”
Those same sentiments were expressed Monday by neighbors Russell Pellichino, David Tompkins, Tom Vogelsanger and others.
Lowered property values were also mentioned as a worry.
“I was amazed at the level of fear,” Groover said. “I can understand fear. It doesn’t have to be rational. I don’t know how to assuage an irrational fear except by saying I promise it is my heartfelt desire that this be something that improves your property value. I’m think it’s going to be almost like a hospital facility. How many property values were lowered by North Oaks going in? Nobody. Everybody is getting a whole lot more for those strawberry fields.”
Notariano said he will attempt to organize a community meeting on the topic, but on Monday warned neighbors that the parish council must follow the law and if this facility meets parish requirements, the parish will have no choice but to grant permission for the project.