A second South Jersey community is balking at plans by real estate developer J. Brian O'Neill to locate a drug and alcohol treatment center in its midst.
Unlike in Haddonfield, his dispute with Gloucester Township has landed in court.
O'Neill wants to establish a Recovery Centers of America facility in Gloucester Township near the Blackwood campus of Camden County College.
The township recently rejected O'Neill's proposal for a 37-bed residential treatment facility on Peter Cheeseman Road, saying the property is not zoned for a drug center.
The Diocese of Camden previously operated a retreat on the site. O'Neill wants to renovate a 31,000-square-foot building there.
Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer declined comment, citing a pending lawsuit filed by O'Neill. In court filings, the township has denied O'Neill's allegations that his application was unfairly rejected.
O'Neill said that he believes he has the right to operate a treatment center at the site and that township officials denied his application and variance request in response to public opposition.
In an interview last week, O'Neill said he purchased the property for $6.5 million, hired an engineer and architects, and has spent thousands in planning costs.
"They're just stonewalling us," O'Neill said. "All we are trying to do is save lives."
His plan to build a similar facility in nearby Haddonfield has also met resistance.
But both sides there said they are negotiating to reach an agreement, though they differed on the status of the talks and whether O'Neill would withdraw his plans for a treatment center in what is now the Bancroft School.
"We continue to have discussions," said Haddonfield Mayor Jeff Kasko, who believes a deal may be finalized in several weeks. "It's very cordial."
O'Neill said Haddonfield has identified two possible alternative sites in close proximity to Haddonfield. He declined to disclosed the locations.
"We are working to resolve it," O'Neill said Thursday. "As of right now, technically, I'm building on that site," he said of Bancroft.
Officials in both Camden County communities agree that more drug treatment facilities are needed in the area. The question is where they should be placed.
In 2013, nearly 44,000 people in the United States died of a drug overdose, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
In New Jersey, overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death; more than 700 people died from drug overdoses in the state in 2009 alone, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the Alliance said. The five counties with the highest numbers of drug overdose deaths are Camden, Essex, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean.
Recovery Centers of America wants to create 15 facilities between Boston and Maryland. The centers will feature boutique, hotel-like accommodations and a continuum of inpatient and outpatient care.
O'Neill contends that the denials by Gloucester Township discriminate against those battling drug and alcohol addictions and violates the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
His company, based in King of Prussia, filed suit recently in state Superior Court in Camden asking a judge to overturn the township's decision.
According to the lawsuit, Gloucester Township's zoning board ruled in March that the center was a permitted use in an institutional zone. O'Neill contends township officials withdrew their support after a public hearing in July.
"While people are dying, these politicians are worried about getting reelected," he said.
O'Neill ran into similar problems earlier this year when plans were disclosed for a drug recovery facility on the Bancroft campus near J. Fithian Tatem Elementary and next to Haddonfield Memorial High School.
In March, O'Neill said he had an agreement to purchase the nearly 19-acre Bancroft property along Kings Highway and Hopkins Lane. The dollar amount was not disclosed.
Kasko said Haddonfield is negotiating with O'Neill to possibly buy the property. A proposal to sell the land to the Haddonfield School District for $12 million was defeated in a hotly debated bond referendum in 2013. The site may be redeveloped for schools, a park, and possibly a townhouse project overseen by O'Neill, he said.
O'Neill could not confirm the specifics of the negotiations.
"I really understand the need for a [drug] facility, just not there," said Brian Kelly, founder of Haddonfield United, a grassroots advocacy group. "It just would be bad for the town."