By Sarah Nagem
A North Carolina judge gave the go-ahead to a nonprofit group that wants to open a residential drug-treatment center in Robeson County, setting aside denials by county commissioners and concerns from neighbors.
Hope Alive, which has been at the center of controversy since the state legislature earmarked $10 million in 2021 for the organization that has no experience in treating substance use disorders, got a victory in court Friday.
Superior Court Judge Jason Disbrow granted Hope Alive a special-use permit to open in Parkton – a land-use hurdle that Robeson County commissioners voted against in December, said County Attorney Rob Davis.
Davis said he could only speak generally about the judge’s decision, because Disbrow had not formally submitted a ruling to the court as of Tuesday.
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Bart Grimes, chief of behavioral health services at Robeson Health Care Corporation, which has been working with Hope Alive, also confirmed the judge’s decision. He applauded the move as a step forward in combating the opioid epidemic in Robeson County.
“We’re going to over the long term build this program,” Grimes said of the planned facility. “And hopefully it will become the vision that we set out for it to be.”
Hope Alive, which began in 2020, has faced plenty of obstacles in its quest to open an 82-bed facility in a former nursing home in Parkton, about 22 miles north of Lumberton.
The organization is affiliated with Greater Hope International Church in Robeson County, which was led by pastor Ronald Barnes until his unexpected death in October.
WRAL reported in January 2022 that court records in Virginia showed Barnes had pleaded guilty to several counts of embezzlement between 1992 and 2004.
In April 2022, Hope Alive reportedly appointed Oryan Lowry as executive director. Lowry was fired from his job as Pembroke town manager in 2014 after he used a credit card belonging to the town to buy more than $1,000 worth of personal purchases, according to The Robesonian.
County commissioners first said no to Hope Alive’s plans last summer, when they voted to deny the group’s request to rezone a roughly 9-acre tract that would house the drug-treatment center.
The county board also denied a request to rezone a piece of land several miles away on Lonnie Farm Road, where the organization has plans for participants to grow and sell produce, Grimes said.
When the board voted in December to once again deny a request for the facility site – this time after Hope Alive filed its request under a different land-use designation – the organization filed a court petition, Davis said.
Some residents who live near the site had voiced concerns about whether it was the best place to open such a large facility, County Commissioner Lance Herndon, who voted against Hope Alive’s most recent request, told the Border Belt Indepent.
“I think the biggest concern is the size of the facility for what it would be used for,” he said, adding that some residents also worried about property values and public safety.
In 2021, 127 people in Robeson County died of drug overdoses, according to data compiled by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The county’s overdose rate – 97.2 per 100,000 residents – was more than 2.5 times the statewide rate.
“People are continuing to die as we work our way through this process to get the facility open,” said Grimes, adding that Hope Alive still needs to become licensed by the state. “There’s a lot of passion by the folks that want to get it open.”
The facility hopes to open in September, WRAL reported Tuesday.
Hope Alive plans to use medication-assisted treatment to ease participants’ opioid withdrawal symptoms, Grimes said.
Eventually, he said, the goal is to provide wrap-around services for people struggling with addiction, from detox to transitional housing and employment. He envisions the creation of “sober” opportunities for fellowship and entertainment.
“We feel like that’s what it’s going to take for the community, to help heal,” Grimes said.
Herndon remains skeptical, however, saying he believes the key to combating the opioid epidemic is to get drug dealers off the streets.
“I’m certainly not a specialist,” he said, “but I think you always want to take care of the source. And for people who are addicted, you want them to get help.”
Herndon said he hopes commissioners will discuss next steps when it comes to Hope Alive.
Davis said the judge’s approval of a special-use permit means the organization must come before the county board once again, this time to hash out details such as fencing and lighting.
He said the board could opt to file an appeal in the case.