By Jeremy Ashley
Tuesday, December 03, 2002 - 10:00
Local News - MARMORA — Before a town hall packed with close to 125 people, council here unanimously denied a rezoning application that would allow a former motel to house a drug treatment centre.
The move followed a special rezoning hearing Monday night, called to allow those opposed and in favour of allowing Narconon to legally continue in the former Treelawny Hotel.
Narconon is a drug rehabilitation program with close ties to the Church of Scientology and utilizes the methods of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The establishment of a Narconon facility in Marmora has caused huge rifts in segments of the community, 40 km northwest of Belleville.
After almost two hours of public deputations regarding the application, council, in a recorded vote of 4-0 voted in favor of denying the application to rezone the site.
Reeve Lionel Bennett declared a conflict of interest because his company insures the property in question.
Although the owner of the property, Toronto resident and businessman Devinder Luthra, plans to appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board later this year, the move marked the culmination of months of public debate regarding the property.
Luthra purchased the Highway 7 property in late August and his daughter, Penny, established the program soon thereafter.
Rumours circulating in the tight-knit community of 1,500 soon turned into public outcry when it came to light that the property was not properly zoned to house a drug rehabilitation centre.
Eventually, following a number of letters and phone calls to local newspapers and Marmora councillors, Luthra was forced to apply to rezone the motel as a commercial property with a specific use.
Both sides squared off in front of council, Monday, with seven deputations speaking in favour of the application while 14 spoke against.
On one side, proponents of the endeavor — six of whom were from the Toronto area — told of the benefits of the program and attempted to dispel rumours that Narconon would not only bring an influx of criminal activity to the area, but that the operation is an attempt by the Church of Scientology to infiltrate the region.
In opposition, Marmora residents — who presented a petition with more than 350 names of locals opposed to the application — rallied against the establishment, saying the program would have a negative effect on the area by effectively labeling the region a "drug treatment centre" for outsiders.
"We will be taking this to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board)," pledged Penny Luthra following the decision.
Currently, she noted, the facility — which can service up to 15 people — houses one "student" and two counsellors.
The patients arrive at the centre "from all over Canada," she noted.
During the meeting, her father Devinder — a devout Sikh — said he bought the property because he "wanted to bring peace and harmony and revenue to this town."
He claimed he purchased the property with the intent of establishing the centre only after extensively researching Narconon.
"I am not a Scientologist... I am not a part of Scientology," the Toronto businessman added. "I like the way they treat their patients... I want to do some good work for this society."
As for members of the community who feel their safety is threatened by having former drug addicts in the town, he maintained that "none of the students are permitted to leave (the premises of the facility) without a staff member. They don’t do anything mischievous. I am concerned about the safety of the local people — I am a new part of Marmora (and) I want this town to flourish."
A number of Scientology and Narconon supporters insisted Narconon is an arm’s length organization of Scientology.
Reverend Al Buttnor of the Office of Public Affairs of the Church of Scientology rose to say what was before council "was only a zoning issue," and councillors were not called to make a judgment either on Narconon or Scientology.
"You are dealing with people who are part of the community themselves... wanting to improve themselves," he contended.
"Just because somebody’s getting off drugs doesn’t mean they are a pariah of the community... they’re trying to improve their lives."
Compared to some of the clientele who used to live in the motel when it was in commercial operation, Buttnor said "we’re not looking at something radically different here."
Buttnor went on to say "there aren’t any hidden agendas," with the establishment of the Narconon program in Marmora, and attempted to dispel myths that the "Scientologists are buying up the community... this is just terrible rhetoric.
"If the community does have a concern, the town council can appoint townspeople to come into the facility at any time. The bottom line here is that we’re here to help people."
Buttnor’s comments were echoed by many who took the stand after him, including Toronto businessman Julian Hay, a Scientologist who was a 12-year heroin addict before entering the Narconon program close to 20 years ago.
He spoke of the program’s natural approach to drug rehabilitation, which includes exercise, proper eating and vitamin supplements.
"Narconon is completely non-denominational," he said. "It doesn’t recognize a religious philosophy — it’s about getting people off of drugs."
Those opposed to the application quickly lined up to be heard from the podium.
Marmora resident Susan Connolly picked apart the zoning application, stating it was presented without proper site plan documents and the proposed land use was wrongly classified.
"I would suggest to you that this site does not qualify for rezoning," she proclaimed.
Mike and Yvonne McGrath said the municipality should be pushing for more tourism industry for the region — not drug treatment facilities.
Local Ted Bonter said the establishment of Narconon "contributes nothing to the betterment of this community," and suggested Devinder reopen the facility as a motel.
"This thing has evolved from under the table — it was a smoke-screen from the beginning, and is tonight," he said as the room filled with applause.
Stuart Newton said the community "does not want to be known as a drug treatment centre," to outsiders.
Following the meeting, Devinder did not say when he would be filing an official appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board regarding the rezoning application.