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Battle looms in Blue Point over rehab proposal for convent site

The Ursula Center convent in Blue Point is

The Ursula Center convent in Blue Point is shown on Nov. 24, 2017. Credit: John Roca

A battle is brewing over a proposal to convert a decades-old convent in Blue Point into a 76-bed drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility for women.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Neil Foley, who represents the area where the St. Ursula Center owned by the Ursuline sisters is located, said he will not support a zoning variance that would allow the facility to open there.

But leaders of Westhampton-based Seafield Center, who have signed a contract with the nuns to purchase the 8.3-acre property, said they are moving ahead with the plan and are not sure a zoning variance is needed.

The nuns and Seafield — a state licensed provider of rehab services — plan to host a public meeting on the proposal at the convent on Middle Road Dec. 7 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Both Foley and John Haley, chief operating officer of Seafield, said they expect to have many supporters at the meeting.

The Ursuline sisters, with the number of its members declining, announced in April they were selling the property — a local landmark in a quiet residential area near the Great South Bay — to help pay for rising living costs and health care for the nuns.

On Nov. 16 they said they had reached an agreement with Seafield, and hoped to close the deal within two months. They did not disclose the sale price.

Foley said opposition to the proposal runs deep in the community, and he doubts the project will reach fruition.

“I know a lot of the constituents in the area are against this issue,” said Foley, who prefers to see the building turned into a library, a plan that has already been under discussion among community leaders. “I’ve come out publicly and said I do not support a zone change for the area.”

Foley said he was aware that there is a need for rehab services in Suffolk County, which is experiencing an epidemic of opioid abuse.

“I’m willing to work with Seafield to look for other locations, but I cannot support a zone change for the Blue Point location,” he said.

Foley said the property is zoned A1, which allows the nuns’ center along with housing, schools and other religious and educational uses.

But Haley said he is uncertain a zoning change is needed, since Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for Long Island residents have taken place for years at the convent, which has served as the nuns’ headquarters since the 1930s.

He also said there is already a nurse’s station at the facility, which also has housed elderly nuns in need of nursing care.

“We might fit into what historically has been going on, so it’s not a change of use,” Haley said.

He said concerns about the rehab center disrupting the neighborhood, hurting property values and unleashing a wave of drug addicts wandering the streets are unfounded, based on the private, for-profit group’s work running a rehabilitation facility in Westhampton Beach for men and women for 32 years.

“We are a good neighbor,” he said.

The group plans to relocate its women’s operation to Blue Point and make the 6-acre Westhampton site all-male. Seafield also runs six outpatient sites in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The convent, Haley said, is exempt from paying taxes, while building houses on the property could mean bringing more children into the schools.

“We are talking about going onto the tax map, paying taxes to the town, and not impacting the school district in any way whatsoever,” he said.

“There’s a lot of positives for the community that I don’t think are out there yet” including creating dozens of jobs.

In Westhampton, Seafield has 100 beds and a waiting list to get in, Haley said. “Every single day we are turning people away that we can’t provide services for,” he said. “And those people are leaving the region if there are no beds on Long Island.”

Jason Borowski, a leader of a group of residents who live near the convent, said most understand there is a need for drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, but that the proposed location is not appropriate.

“To put what is fundamentally a commercial facility and a medical facility in the heart of a residential area doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Borowski added that it is not realistic to compare Seafield’s Westhampton site to the proposed Blue Point facility.

Blue Point has a much higher housing density and is a year-round community, while Westhampton Beach is a big vacation destination with many summer rentals.

“It’s a completely different situation,” he said. “It’s apples and oranges.”

Meanwhile, the proposal to turn the site into a library is moving slowly, as the local library board seeks to complete a feasibility study and other reports by early 2018, and then move for the board and public to start making decisions some time during the year, said library director Michael Firestone.

Sister Joanne Callahan, head of the Ursuline order, said the nuns — while also supportive of the library proposal — cannot wait for what could be well over a year more for the library board and the public to vote on a decision. There’s no guarantee the required bonds and other items would be approved in the end, she added.

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