Board backs zoning inspector’s permit denial for New Aurora Health

by Laura Bednar

Feb. 21 board of zoning appeals meeting

Sagamore Hills Board of Zoning Appeals affirmed Zoning Inspector Ray Fantozzi’s denial of an occupancy permit for New Aurora Health at 997 W. Aurora Rd. Fantozzi denied the permit because the planned use for the property as a “mental health and substance abuse treatment center” does not fall within the permitted uses in the township’s zoning resolution.

Al Schrader, attorney with Roderick Linton Belfance, appealed Fantozzi’s decision, stating the portion of the property for which the applicants applied for a permit would be used as an outpatient facility, and therefore falls under the zoning code’s allowance for “professional offices such as medical, dental, legal, engineering, realtor, accounting and such.”

In a December 2023 letter to Fantozzi, Schrader noted that Phase 1 is “akin to a medical office” and “mental health and addiction outpatient treatment will be provided.” The second phase would encompass the remainder of the property and include beds for patients.

“These kinds of medical facilities – substance abuse and mental health treatment – have been repeatedly recognized by courts as being medical facilities,” Schrader said.

Township attorney Jeff Snell said the building had a conditional use permit for assisted living issued in 1999, and the assisted living complex closed in 2022.

He said the facility’s classification changed throughout correspondences between New Aurora Health and Sagamore Hills. In a June 2023 letter, New Aurora Health Center President Kevin Strong requested the zoning committee consider a change for the property to “mental health and substance abuse detox, and recovery center.”

The zoning application for a certificate of compliance and occupancy submitted in November 2023 stated the proposed use for the 69,995-square-foot building was a “medical office/mental health and substance abuse treatment center.”

Fantozzi said New Aurora Health representatives attended two zoning meetings and did not mention anything about phases of the project and only touched on the idea of outpatient services.

Denny Wilson, chief officer of engagement for New Aurora Health, said treatment at the outpatient facility would be given based on a diagnosis from a doctor. He said part of treatment would include a focus on the physical body, which is why the facility would have a gym and recreation room for “individuals to stay at while they’re in between classes, groups and individual sessions with their licensed professionals.”

Schrader said Medicare/Medicaid and other medical insurance covers the cost of outpatient services because it is considered a medical treatment.

Fantozzi said a partial reason for the permit denial was because a professional office doesn’t have features Wilson mentioned, like a gym or chapel.

Wilson said the types of people working in the outpatient facility would include “licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians and licensed independent counselors.” The hours of the outpatient facility would be 8 a.m.-9 p.m. and anytime a therapist needed to be available.

One of Schrader’s witnesses, Kevin Smith, is a licensed social worker who offers counseling for mental illness and substance abuse. He works at the VA outpatient clinic on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. Smith said the VA clinic provides services similar to what New Aurora Health intends to provide. He said hours at the VA clinic were 7 a.m.-4 p.m.

Snell said what New Aurora Health is proposing is inconsistent with a medical office and its overall intention is “to occupy the whole building with residents.”

Zoning board comments

Board of zoning appeals member Christian Drago said New Aurora Health used the term facility, and it wasn’t until later that representatives used the term “professional office.”

“What you’re describing sounds like a treatment center,” he said. “When I think professional office, I don’t think a 69,000-square-foot building.”

Board member Jeffrey Spangler said there were discrepancies in the paperwork. The original zoning application noted a “change of occupant in existing building,” meaning the zoning was appropriate and the occupant is changing.

“It seems like in future communications and letters, you’re admitting there’s going to be a change in use,” Spangler said, adding that the application noted the building’s 69,995 square feet, which would encompass more than just “Phase 1.”

Board member Alan DiGirolamo said New Aurora Health is leasing the property from Investments at Barnett and filed for a zoning permit on Nov. 16, 2023, which was two weeks before the lease started, according to DiGirolamo.

He also said the original zoning application was filed by New Aurora Health and the zoning appeal was filed by the organization’s president, Kevin Strong, but a shareholder doesn’t have an individual right to corporate assets to file the appeal.

The final vote was Drago, Spangler and Tim Black affirming Fantozzi’s decision, and DiGirolamo voting not to affirm, stating he was willing to allow Schrader to address the standing issues before a vote was taken. ∞