MONROE TWP. -- Like many communities nationwide, this Gloucester County town is struggling with the opioid crisis.
It gained an unwelcome distinction a few years ago as a town with an overdose death rate 25 times the national average.
Now a company that provides substance abuse treatment services wants to open up a facility locally.
Crossroads Treatment Centers has applied for permits to open at Madison Plaza on South Black Horse Pike, but the effort has run into opposition.
After the township zoning officer denied a use variance for the project, Crossroads appealed to the zoning board. Following a hearing a February, a motion to overturn the denial was voted down.
Zoning officer Rosemary Flaherty maintained that the location -- in a shopping center with an apartment complex behind it -- was not appropriate for such a facility. Flaherty said the treatment center is an institutional use not in line with zoning in that area. Crossroads officials argued an opioid treatment center is allowed in this zone, which permits business and professional uses, since this is a medical use similar to a doctor's office.
Crossroads took the matter to court and a Superior Court judge ordered the zoning officer to issue the zoning permit in June after the parties "amicably adjusted and resolved" the matter, according to court documents.
Now the company must come back to the township for a site plan waiver, according to Mayor Dan Teefy.
Crossroads chose Monroe because of its centralized location, Teefy explained. He noted that the township is fighting the addiction battle on many fronts locally.
"A rehabilitation center is one path of the many paths that can be taken for recovery," Teefy said in a statement. "With our Municipal Alliance Commission, we have been working to provide awareness to those paths of recovery through forums and working with the schools."
Crossroads representatives described their services in detail, according to minutes from the February zoning board meeting.
Crossroads opened its first facility in South Carolina a decade ago and currently operates 18 centers.
Treatment facilities, which are staffed by doctors, nurses and counselors, are licensed by the state and inspected by the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Patients receive methadone as treatment for opioid addiction. Methadone, administered under a doctor's care, helps ween a patient off of their dependance on opioids. In addition, they undergo mandatory counseling and random drug testing.
Some residents expressed concerns about children living in the nearby apartments being near addicts as they wait for school buses.
Crossroads officials addressed concerns about the facility potentially attracting crime. There has never been a police report related to one of their facilities and loitering is not permitted, stated Steve Kester, Crossroads chief development officer. Medication is stored in a vault and Crossroads has never had a break-in, he added.
Kester estimated that 90 percent of their patients are in and out for medication treatment from 5 to 10 a.m., meaning Crossroads operations would have little overlap with other shopping center businesses.
Patient visits can last anywhere from 10 minutes to receive medication to 45 minutes for counseling sessions.
Crossroads officials did not return calls for comment on their plans.
Teefy noted that several South Jersey communities are home to similar treatment centers, including Washington Township, Egg Harbor and Somers Point that are "quietly helping individuals find the path to recovery."
He sought to calm any fears residents might have about Crossroads coming to Monroe Township.
"If the facility were to locate within our township's borders, our residents can be assured that officials and project representatives would hold monthly briefings with the Monroe Township Police Department regarding the operations of the facility," he said.
While there are negative perceptions associated with methadone treatment, the substance helps patients avoid relapses and can help them get their lives back on track, Monroe Councilman Cody Miller said. That improvement in individual lives is ultimately beneficial to the entire community, he suggested.
"While people may disagree with it, we are a township that is trying to combat this issue and treatment is treatment."