By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org
A substance abuse treatment center has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Deerfield Beach alleging the city illegally blocked its plans to expand after neighbors complained.
The suit alleges the city violated the American with Disabilities Act as well as the Fair Housing Act when it denied Deerfield Florida House, Inc., which treats and houses recovering addicts, from adding a medical detoxification center in the 500 block of South Federal Highway.
The detox center was planned for across the highway from the existing Deerfield Florida House campus, which comprises three adjoining properties.
“This thing was moving through very smoothly, any concerns that the city had from a staff level were being addressed,” said Scott Backman, attorney for the center. “And as soon as the community started making noise, the elected officials started to listen, and the city started to change the manner in which they dealt with us and our application.”
Backman said the city initially treated the center under city code as a single facility undergoing expansion. Later, the city denied the expansion by asserting that it was a separate facility and citing code requirements for a 1,000-foot separation between special residence facilities like the Deerfield Florida House.
The Planning and Zoning Board denied the detox center’s plans on July 7, according to the lawsuit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale.
An appeal was not made to the City Commission. Instead, the lawsuit was filed.
City Attorney Andrew Maurotis declined to comment on the lawsuit and zoning board decision. Mayor Peggy Noland could not be reached for comment.
However, Dan Schabowski, who owns a home in the Deerfield Beach Gardens community near the facility, said that neighbors had a reason to be wary of an expanded addiction recovery campus.
“This is a neighborhood with a lot of little kids running around,” he said. “What if they get a pedophile running around?”
The lawsuit quotes others who spoke out against the project at the zoning board meeting.
“You are forcing us to offer up our children, our elderly, our special needs population, all of us to the undeniable ugliness that will be, is shown to be associated with these kinds of facilities,” one resident said.
Backman believes the city unfairly bowed to pressure from area homeowners.
“Sometimes things just go wrong and you have to protect the interests of your clients, and that’s exactly what’s going on here,” he said. “I do understand political pressure because that’s the environment I work in as a land-use attorney.”
The co-owners of the for-profit Deerfield Florida House are Sherief Abu-Moustafa and his father, Adel. Sherief Abu-Moustafa blames neighborhood worries on ignorance.
“Unfortunately, people aren’t educated to what substance abuse is about. So they hear ‘detox,’ they think of, I think, pain clinics and drugs, and it spun out of control,” he said. “I think, politically, the city saw that there were people against it and they became uncomfortable and unfortunately tried to find a way of stopping it, which isn’t fair to me, which isn’t fair to the people I serve.”
Abu-Moustafa, himself a former addict, purchased the first Deerfield Florida House property in 2003, when it was a halfway house that he said was also a haven for illegal drugs and prostitution.
He has since added landscape and expanded the property into a campus that includes two apartment buildings and pools and JoJo’s Cafe, which serves clients and the public. The nationally accredited facility provides treatment and a sober residence for clients suffering or recovering from substance abuse.
The staff of more than 80 full-time employees includes nurses and therapists who help transition clients back to a sober life off campus and to find re-employment, Abu-Moustafa said. The addition of a medical detoxification center would allow them to be involved from the beginning of this process.
“When I bought this building across the street, my intentions were good,” he said of property he purchased in May for $1.3 million. “By offering the entire continuum of care – and this is anywhere – you’re able to really guide people better.”
Moustafa maintains that the Deerfield Florida House, which attracts clients from across the country, is an “asset” to the community and estimates that the operation spends $100,000 to $150,000 a month at local businesses like Publix and Target.
“I’m not looking to hurt the city. I want what’s right for the clients we serve,” he said. “I love the city. I really do. But what’s right is right.”