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Crime, Property Values : Diverse Neighbors Share Concerns Over Drug Center

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Times Staff Writer

Although ranch owners in San Diego County and homeowners in Lake View Terrace may not seem on the surface to have much in common, both groups have struggled with the prospect of a drug rehabilitation center’s moving into their neighborhoods.

They share worries about the effect of such a center on property values, crime rates and neighborhood children.

On Sunday, administrators from Phoenix House--the nonprofit drug services agency that wants to turn the bankrupt Lake View Medical Center into the Nancy Reagan drug treatment center--arranged a meeting between the two groups.

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Differences were apparent.

The ranch dwellers waited in their cowboy shirts and Veterans of Foreign War caps at the Phoenix House built a year ago on 170 acres in Descanso, east of San Diego. The Lake View Terrace residents arrived on a Phoenix House-chartered bus, with well-coiffed hair and comfortable walking shoes.

Robert Locke lives near the Descanso center and described himself as “Phoenix House’s biggest enemy, initially.” Locke talked about his main fear regarding the location--fire. Most of the year, the hills around the Descanso site are covered with bone-dry grasses and shrubs.

Phoenix House addressed those worries by boarding up fireplaces in the eight cabins that house the teen-age residents and by banning cigarette smoking.

Lynne Cooper, recording secretary for the Lake View Terrace Improvement Assn., said her fears might be more difficult to calm because they reflect her community’s proximity to drug- and crime-plagued neighborhoods of the northeast San Fernando Valley.

“We see this as a 200-person possible market for drug dealers who are already running rampant in our area,” said Cooper, whose back yard faces the 14-acre Lake View Medical Center property.

But Descanso property owners said they had shared but dismissed arguments raised against the drug rehabilitation center at a recent Lake View Terrace community meeting, particularly the hunch that disenchanted center residents would stray into their neighborhoods, looking for money, drugs or trouble.

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“So far we’ve had none of that,” said Gwyn Locke.

Students are under 24-hour supervision for the nine to 15 months they spend at the center, said Larraine Mohr, vice president for Phoenix House administration. The spend mornings in classes taught by public school teachers lent full-time to Phoenix House by their district and spend most afternoons doing chores.

Yet, Mohr acknowledged that no doors are locked and that staff members cannot physically restrain a teen-ager who wants to leave. Instead, the staff alerts local law enforcement agencies when residents who are on probation disappear and notifies parents about those teen-agers not on probation, she said.

Descanso Phoenix House Director Howard Friend added that residents who leave his program tend to head for home, not for surrounding properties.

Phoenix House’s plans for the Nancy Reagan Center in Lake View Terrace call for a live-in adolescent center for 150 teen-agers, an adult center for 60 people and research and training programs.

At capacity, the school would be more than twice the size of Phoenix House’s adolescent programs in Venice, Santa Ana and Descanso, but it would not be the largest Phoenix House facility. The Phoenix Academy near Yorktown, N.Y., holds 250 teen-agers.

Plans for using the Lake View Medical Center are muddied because Phoenix House is involved in a bidding competition with a group of doctors who want to use the site for a hospital and infectious disease research institute.

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Phyllis Hines, president of the Lake View Terrace Improvement Assn., said news reports about the hospital group’s advantage in the bidding war may have contributed to the small, seven-person turnout Sunday. The most strident past critics chose to stay home, she said.

During a brief tour of the Descanso site, Lake View Terrace homeowners were shown spotless cabins that house the students.

Friend, who began with Phoenix House to overcome his own drug problems in 1969, explained that all perquisites are earned.

Interviews with past residents completed by Phoenix House’s research unit found that 75% of those who completed the program stayed free of drugs, out of legal trouble and either employed or in school.

But the days are so regimented and rules are so stringent that Phoenix House research indicates that more than half of those accepted drop out, most of them during the first month.

“We’ve had people say they’d rather be in jail than in Phoenix House, because jail is easier,” said William Smith, vice president for clinical services.

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At the end of Sunday’s trip, Lake View Terrace homeowners had softened somewhat toward the program, but they remained skeptical about what they had seen at Descanso.

“I felt that the best foot had been put forward,” said resident Edna Jackson. “I’m not saying they’re not telling the truth. . . . When I have a guest come to my house, I put my best foot forward too.”

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