The property already is owned by one of Atiyeh’s many companies -- Column Realty LLC – which purchased it from Lehigh County in May 2012.

A zoning variance is needed because the property is within 1,000 feet “of other drug & alcohol rehabilitation facilities, temporary shelters, halfway houses or
group homes.”

Atiyeh said that section of the city’s zoning ordinance is exclusionary. He said in other local municipalities the distance requirement is from “a treatment center to a treatment center. It’s not a treatment center to a halfway house or a treatment center to a temporary shelter.”

Atiyeh wants approval as an existing non-conforming use, but having that use changed from correctional facility to drug treatment facility.

Making money

Atiyeh was not shy about acknowledging the treatment facility will be run as a for-profit business that “will make good money.”

“You’ll have to have private insurance to come here,” said Atiyeh, adding most insurance companies cover only up to a 28-day treatment program. He said insurance companies pay a substantial amount of money.

But later he said his facility also would treat “a certain percentage” of teens that need help but are uninsured.

“I have no experience in adolescent treatment,” Atiyeh admitted to zoners. “I am the owner and I have licensed people to do that work.”

Atiyeh said no out-patient treatment will be done on the property, to reduce the traffic impact on the neighborhood. He said post-28 day outpatient treatment will be done at another location. He also said the 6th Street property will not be a long-term facility where people stay for months.

He said the proposed facility will not accept boys whose primary problems are mental health issues, rather than drug and alcohol addiction. And he said kids who misbehave will be kicked out of the facility.

Atiyeh told the zoning board he is working to get a similar 46-bed unit for girls approved in Bethlehem.

Back to a correctional facility?

A drug treatment facility is “a much less onerous use” for the property than a correctional facility, said Atty. Mickey Thompson, chief operating officer at Column Realty.

But Thompson said he has a certificate of occupancy and could reopen the place tomorrow as a correctional facility.

“That’s your opinion,” said McCarthy. “I’m just not accepting the fact, because I haven’t heard all the testimony, as to whether or not the certificate of occupancy gives you that vested right.”

Atty. William Malkames, representing the applicants, said he has great respect for McCarthy, but suggested it is “very important” that McCarthy separate his function as a Lehigh County commissioner from his function as a zoning board member.

McCarthy said he would have recused himself from the case if the property still was owned by the county. He stressed he also was not involved in any prior county litigation involving that property.

“I’m not suggesting you recuse yourself,” said Malkames. “You are a fair-minded, honest person.”

City officials testify

Cynthia Mota spoke in support of the facility, but said she was not doing so as a member of City Council. She testified she has worked in the drug and alcohol field for 11 years, including four years as director of the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, an out-patient facility for adults and adolescents.

“It’s great seeing children coming out of their addiction,” she said. “It’s awesome when you see them getting better. They’re not dying of an overdose. You see them become productive members of society.”

Mota said she had to refer adolescents who needed help to residential facilities in Reading and Eagleville. She said there is a great need for such a facility in Allentown. “We need to save our children.”

She said children are hesitant when they have to go to another city for help and transporting them can be a financial burden on families with fixed incomes.

Six objectors and one interested party – City Council president Julio Guridy – addressed the zoning board.