A Chicago nonprofit group faces backlash over plans to open a drug and alcohol treatment center in Wheaton, even as state and county officials throw support behind the facility they say would provide much-needed services in the fight against the opioid crisis.
Hundreds of letters and emails have flooded the city's planning department in advance of a hearing on the project tonight. Many are from residents worried about crime, property values and the proximity of the proposed center to a kid-friendly shopping district that includes a day-care center, a toy store and a movie theater.
But advocates say the Haymarket Center facility would address a shortage of residential programs for recovering addicts in DuPage County. Proponents also say much of the outcry stems from the stigma surrounding opioid addiction.
The proposal comes amid a rising death toll from overdoses across the suburbs. Through mid-December, DuPage County recorded 81 confirmed opioid overdose deaths, up from 79 in 2016, according to the coroner's office.
"We are talking about a medical condition that, if not treated, will cost the county and families dearly by not having coordinated care and comprehensive care in that area," said Dr. Dan Lustig, Haymarket's president and CEO.
Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, a former Wheaton councilwoman, is among those endorsing the center. Sanguinetti, who was appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner to a task force on the opioid crisis, said she recently toured Haymarket's headquarters in Chicago.
"This residential and outpatient substance abuse facility has been on the front lines of addiction and treatment since 1975," she wrote in a letter to the city council. "I was impressed by their work and consider them a strong ally in the ongoing fight against the opioid epidemic."
The county's top prosecutor also wrote a letter in favor of the center that would provide both outpatient care and residential treatment for patients with substance abuse disorders.
"The fact is that we desperately need more treatment options closer to home," DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin wrote.
Some residents say they support a treatment center in concept, but not at a vacant site next to a Kinder-Care facility on East Loop Road. In emails to the city, other residents say they don't want the facility anywhere in Wheaton.
Julie Kulovits, an attorney and mom who lives in the Danada East subdivision, said the center would be better suited on or near a hospital campus. She called for an analysis on the potential impact of the facility on EMS and police services.
"I know Haymarket says there's a need for drug treatment centers in DuPage County, and that very may well be the case, but there needs to be more responsible discussion about what locations are the most appropriate ones for both their patients and city services," she said.
Other residents take issue with Haymarket's zoning request.
The nonprofit has proposed an amendment to the city code to add residential treatment facilities as a special use in the corresponding zoning district.
If the amendment were approved, Haymarket also would have to obtain the special-use permit.
A shuttered Loyola University Medical Center office building currently sits on the property. But Kevin Szelagowski, who lives off Camden Place, said the city shouldn't ignore the possibility of a revenue-generating business at the site.
"I don't see a good reason for this facility to be allowed to have, in effect, an exception to the zoning laws," Szelagowski said.
Lustig said Haymarket -- run by a board led by chairman and former Illinois House Speaker Lee Daniels -- selected the site with input from a consulting firm. Such a single-story building with parking is ideal to Haymarket's needs, Lustig said.
"The costs of build-out wasn't going to be expensive," Lustig said. "It was centrally located, but none of that was more important than the proximity to hospitals. We wanted to be within proximity of area hospitals so that they would have a resource."
Lustig dismissed concerns the center would care for Cook County residents, saying it's unlikely Haymarket would bus patients from a 400-bed residential complex in Chicago to a 16-bed inpatient program in Wheaton.
Haymarket DuPage would offer a detoxification program and use an intake assessment on patients to determine the level of care they receive. Providers would offer support for families and medication-assisted treatment to help recovering addicts control cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Addressing security concerns, Lustig said plans call for installing a fence around the rear of the property and surveillance cameras at the parking lot in addition to on-site security.
He also expressed frustration over some of the opposition.
"There's a lot of stigma and fear associated with this, and I think that's pretty much what's leading the day, but I think at this point it's time for our politicians to lead by educating through scientific fact and not out of fear," he said. "And frankly, making treatment available should be worn as a badge of honor."
• Daily Herald staff writer Marie Wilson contributed to this report.