Church of Scientology drug rehab facility opposed

The Sydney Morning Herald/March 22, 2014

By Damien Murphy

An offshoot of the Church of Scientology, the Association for Better Living and Education, has applied to Wyong Shire Council to run a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in the Yarramalong Valley in the central coast hinterland.

ABLE runs the controversial substance abuse treatment program Narconon that has been associated with deaths in the US and Europe with some governments forcing the closure of its centres.

ABLE is planning to open new centres in NSW and Victoria.

ABLE lodged a development application last year but did not bother to await Wyong's decision, outlaying $3.8 million on February 7 to buy the 30-hectare Yarramalong property owned by Albert Bertini, a financially-troubled millionaire who left Sydney two years ago.

 Bertini and his former wife, Heather, bought the property in 2006 for $205,000.

Over the years Bertini, whose Trivest Group $400 million property empire collapsed in 2012, changed the flood-prone Yarramalong property into an Italianate playground - often without DA approval - replete with fountains, a twin water slide and tin sheds converted into sleeping quarters, dining room and entertainment area featuring a pole dancing set up.

Yarramalong has been an upmarket weekender spot for generations of the rich and powerful. John Laws, John Singleton and Neville and Jill Wran have called it a home away from home.

The Wyong River runs down the valley and residents mainly live on acreages. The town has a general store, a bric-a-brac shop, a mechanics institute and a restaurant. Police, ambulance and other services are 30 minutes away.

But residents are panicking their peaceful valley will be shattered by the arrival of big city underbelly life that clings to the drug culture.

On Friday, the Yarramalong Community Action Group started distributing documents containing police reports and documents obtained under freedom of information regarding security problems associated with another Narconon centre outside the town of Warburton near Melbourne. The report and documents were also sent to Wyong Shire councillors and detail alleged violent incidents including a drug-affected resident threatening staff with an axe, police being called in to quell rampaging patients or round up addicts wandering the streets. Ambulances would not enter the Narconon facility without police escort.

For 13 years ABLE had run the Narconon centre in a rural Victorian government-owned guesthouse but had put in a DA for a new site within the Warburton township. In keeping with the Scientology habit of using high profile celebrities to further their cause, the church hired Scott Miller, Olympic swimmer, ex-husband of Charlotte Dawson and methamphetamine user, to spruik the Warburton facility.

On March 11, amid massive local opposition fanned by the police reports, Yarra Ranges Shire councillors voted unanimously 8-0 to reject ABLE's planning application.

The chairman of the Yarramalong Community Action Group, Ron Lee, said the centre should not be given the go ahead on zoning grounds alone.

''This is zoned rural residential,'' he said. ''It is not the place for a facility which ABLE's application said could have 60-70 people onsite. Plus visitors.

''We're worried about security with police and ambulance so far away but we're also concerned at what will become of sewerage waste on a site that is so flood prone.''

ABLE spokesman Ralph Harris said at the time the DA was lodged, the site was split zoned - being 1A Rural, and 7A Conservation - with the existing buildings being erected across both zones.

''Under the Wyong LEP 1991 which was current at the time, and therefore the relevant Instrument, the proposed use can be defined as a "community facility" owing to the type of service being offered, and the mode by which that service is delivered. There is no specific definition for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. A 'community facility', as defined within the LEP is a permissible use within both zones.''

Wyong said the decision will be left to council officers.

''Narconon has operated in Australia for over 20 years with over 10,000 successful graduates without any of the problems traditionally associated with medical based drug and alcohol programs,'' Mr Harris said.

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