Update 1:45 p.m.: Mark Epley, one of the operators of the proposed detox facility in North Beach, says he plans to move forward with the project despite objections. Read more from Epley's comments at the end of the piece.
Seventeen years ago, Michelle Salem moved into her home on Bay Drive in Normandy Isle next to what she thought was a regular apartment building. But as she later found out, the building was actually being used to house recovering drug addicts.
In her time living next to the apartments, Salem's backyard was swarmed by a SWAT team making a drug bust next door and, on another occasion, by a man threatening people with a large knife. Salem says many of the residents smoked, causing three separate fires in her yard when they threw their butts onto her property. Once, after seeing a television program about sexual offenders, she pulled up Florida's registry and discovered one of the men next door was a sexual predator.
The building has since been knocked down, but Salem is now warning her neighbors about the potential implications of a new detox facility, backed by three powerful and politically connected business partners, that could be moving in just a few blocks away, on the corner of Normandy Drive and Rue Granville.
"I never complained too loudly to them because I did not want to be in a war with my neighbors," she wrote in an email to members of the Miami Beach planning board, which is expected to review the project at a meeting August 23. "But these types of situations did affect the quality of my life and enjoyment of my property."
Last night, Salem and roughly 125 other North Beach residents met to discuss a proposal for what would be the Beach's first detox center. The project would convert an existing 12-bed assisted living facility and two adjacent properties into a 56-bed center for people trying to shake drug and alcohol addictions.
Word first began circulating about the facility last month after residents got wind of the planning board application. Mickey Minagorri, an eight-year resident of the area and former president of the Normandy Shores Homeowners Association, says he was part of a small group that met with two of the applicants — Mark Epley, mayor of the posh waterfront Village of Southampton in New York, and Rick Yune, an actor from The Fast and the Furious — to learn more about the project.
(The third applicant is listed in city documents as Christopher Cuomo. Minagorri says he was told it's the Christopher Cuomo who has been a journalist for CNN and 20/20, often covering drug addiction, and whose brother is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo; New Times was unable to independently confirm he is in fact the same guy. All three applicants listed an address at a unit in the luxury Setai condominium in South Beach owned by a John C. Abbott.)
Following that initial meeting, Epley agreed to meet with dozens of pissed-off property owners in mid-June, fielding their questions and tentatively trying to sell the idea of the facility to what he conceded was "a tough crowd."
"I know sometimes a detox center is met with cynicism," he said. "The reality is it’s a needed service."
His presentation, which was filmed and posted on YouTube, was mostly met with scoffs and suspicion.
"Thank you for taking a big dump on our property," someone later commented.
In the weeks since, residents have slammed planning board members with angry emails.
"Don't let this detox facility become your Bengazi moment," one Bay Drive couple warned.
Residents say the facility is incompatible with the residential area, which has several nearby daycare centers and a public park. They're also concerned about the potential effects on their property value and the crime rate.
Their concerns aren't unwarranted: A survey of home prices in central Virginia by researchers at Longwood University found that a nearby substance abuse treatment facility can decrease property values by around 8 percent. For facilities that offered treatment for opiate addicts, the effect was greater, representing about a 17 percent decrease.
As far as crime goes, a recent Johns Hopkins study used statistics from Baltimore to try to assuage the fears of residents, saying fewer violent crimes happen near detox centers than near liquor stores or mom-and-pop corner stores — but it’s worth noting neither of those types of shops has a presence near the proposed location in Normandy Isle.
Neighbors also worry the addition of a detox facility would be a waste of recent efforts to revitalize North Beach.
"It seems like South Beach and Mid-Beach are always getting the attention and we were always the underdog," Minagorri says. "Now we're revitalizing the area and spending money and trying to do more things to make it more family-friendly... and all of a sudden we get this call."
"We're not against facilities," says Ruth Klestinec, president of the Normandy Center Homeowners Association. "We believe these people do need help, but not in an area where it's not conducive."
Update 1:45 p.m.: Epley confirmed that one of the business partners, Chris Cuomo, is the brother of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo but said Cuomo was no longer involved in the project "at this point in time."
Epley, who runs a detox facility in New York, says he plans to move forward with the application in the proposed location in Normandy Isle.
"I know the type of operator that I am and the quality of my programs, and I know that it will be an asset," he says. "Property values, security, and people walking freely around the area — those are the concerns. And I think that with good education, we’ll be able to allay many of those concerns. I’ll gladly meet and let anybody tour my [New York] facility who would like that."
While he says he has met with planning board members as part of the "education" process, he denies having or taking advantage of any special connections.
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"We’re not skipping steps, not being given any kind of special privileges," Epley says.
In an interview Wednesday morning, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine also denied involvement in the project beyond one meeting with one of Epley’s partners, the actor Rick Yune.
"Rick came and proposed his idea, and he’s gone through the process in the city, and I understand it has to go to the planning board. It’s not an issue for the mayor or the city commission," Levine says. "I’m not involved."