Lawsuit: Rejection of treatment center for first responders discriminates against disabled people

The Hale Foundation has filed a lawsuit after the Valor Station's zoning application was rejected following widespread opposition from residents


By Susan McCord
The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Hale Foundation is doubling down against the city of Augusta with a federal lawsuit accusing the city of discriminating against first responders with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Last month, the foundation filed suit in Richmond County Superior Court seeking to set aside the Augusta Commission's decision to reject its application for a special zoning exception to open a treatment center.

The Hale Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the city of Augusta, saying the city's rejection of a special zoning exception for the Valor Station treatment center for first responders discriminates against disabled people.
The Hale Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the city of Augusta, saying the city's rejection of a special zoning exception for the Valor Station treatment center for first responders discriminates against disabled people. (Photo/Cliff Richards)

In 5-4 votes, the commission rejected Hale's application to open the center at a former convent because of widespread opposition by residents of the adjacent Green Meadows subdivision. Each time, Commissioner Bill Fennoy's abstention prevented Mayor Hardie Davis from potentially breaking a 5-5 tie, the federal case noted.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, says first responders — police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel — are diagnosed with depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder 50% more often than the civilian population. It says that nationwide first responders are 10 times as often to consider or attempt suicide than the regular population.

Locally, the area has had at least two first responder suicides in the past year, a deputy and an EMT in Aiken County, said Patrick Cullinan, who spearheaded the effort to create the " Valor Station" treatment center.

First responders are often traumatized by crash scenes, such as the recent death of two Fulton County deputies on Interstate 20 near Grovetown, a "horrific" wreck handled largely by Columbia County first responders, he said.

"You see so much unfathomable stuff," said Cullinan, staff representative for the CSRA Police Benevolent Association and a recovering alcoholic. "At home you're trying to cut the switch off. For me the only way to slow that down was by drinking."

Alcohol is the drug most abused by area first responders. "The majority of everything you see with first responders is alcohol," or occasionally addiction to pain pills that were prescribed for an injury, Cullinan said.

It's under the influence when many attempt suicide, including Cullinan, who twice tried to end his life, he said.

The suit contends the commission is discriminating against first responders with disabilities, including substance abuse and other mental or physical impairments, under the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Each act guarantees individuals are not denied services based on a disability.

Opposition to the project has been contentious, with many Green Meadows homeowners posting "Hale No" signs in their yards and accusing Hale of discriminating against the neighborhood by putting the center there rather than where organizers live.

State Sen. Harold Jones, D- Augusta, grew up in the subdivision and opposes the treatment center. He said the neighborhood's opposition was not discriminatory but an effort to maintain the area as residential.

"Our position was basically that there should not be a variance and it was not based on discriminatory intent or effect," he said.

Hale, which runs the Hale House men's treatment center downtown, says it plans to build a six-foot privacy fence between the 20-acre site and Green Meadows. It will obtain an easement from the state to use Augusta Tech property as a new entrance, rather than the current entrance from Green Meadows, the suit says.

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(c)2020 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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