Settlement agreement allows drug rehab center to continue operating, residents express concern

Posted at 1:55 AM, Jan 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-27 07:17:45-05

A drug and mental health residential facility which drew criticism from neighboring homeowners, will be allowed to continue operating after settling a discrimination lawsuit it filed against the city of Fort Myers.

Sovereign Health of Florida, which provides drug addiction and mental health treatment, alleged in a federal lawsuit the city broke discrimination and disability laws when the Code Enforcement Board ordered the center to give up its state license. 

The city agreed to pay $99,000 to a Tampa-Based law firm, and will reimburse Sovereign up to $50,000 for security enhancement related expenses. 

Sovereign Health was issued a zoning permit for the facility and in its lawsuit alleged the city was aware of the services it would be providing. Sovereign claimed the city only changed course when residents began complaining and it tried to shut the facility down.  

The City Attorney told Fox 4 he did not believe the city discriminated against Sovereign Health and said miscommunication may have played a role in what sparked the lawsuit. 

"Everybody could've done a better job, the property owner could have done a better job, and the city could've done a better job," said Grant Alley, Fort Myers City Attorney. "These types of businesses are needed in the city of Fort Myers and the city does not discriminate against individuals with disabilities." 

The settlement requires Sovereign to increase security measures which includes establishing an emergency hotline for residents.

The city has also restricted the types of drug treatment services the center can provide; it can not have an on-site pharmacy, serve as an addiction receiving facility nor offer methadone detoxification for opiate addiction. 

The measures were a direct response to neighborhood concerns regarding safety, according to Alley. Julie Bourassa lived in her home, which is across from the center, for 6 years. She's says she hasn't had issues recently, but did experience disturbances about a year ago.  

"I saw people jumping over the fence, running, asking people to do phone calls, yelling at me across the street," said Bourassa. 

She attended a meeting in 2015 to express her concerns about having a drug treatment facility near her home. She says she's waiting to see the security changes Sovereign makes before she will be at ease. 

"We need to see what will be the extension or which new gate. What kind of security will they put in place" she said.