Will the Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board approve a 28-bed residential facility at the intersection of Center Street and Dewberry Avenue for people who need treatment for drug and alcohol addiction?
That question remains unanswered after the board met for nearly four-and-a-half hours on that issue Tuesday night. In fact, it still may be a long way from rendering a decision.
The first testimony for a special exception to build and operate the facility in that residential neighborhood was heard by the zoning board for abut two hours on Sept. 19.
A third hearing on the proposal has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Nov. 20 in the second floor meeting room inside Bethlehem Public Library, where Tuesday’s hearing was held.
The first person scheduled to testify on Nov. 20 is Abe Atiyeh, the man behind the proposal. He wants to rebut some of Tuesday’s testimony. Neighbors opposed to Atiyeh’s plan also will testify Nov. 20.
Both the principal of Bethlehem Catholic High School and the principal of the Vitalistic Therapeutic Charter School of the Lehigh Valley testified against the proposal Tuesday. Both said the safety of their students is a top priority.
The high school is about 380 feet from the proposed treatment facility and the charter school is inside Calvary Baptist Church, which is right next to the property.
“We believe the proposed location is not in the best interest of the community,” said John Petruzzelli, principal of the high school. “We know it is not in the best interest of our school. A drug treatment facility is in inherent disharmony with our high school community and the surrounding residential neighborhood.”
Petruzzelli said a facility at that location “will negatively impact the ongoing viability of Bethlehem Catholic High School,” and even its continued existence. He explained parents want their children to attend a safe school in a safe neighborhood. If their perception is that neighborhood is unsafe, parents may not send their sons and daughters to Bethlehem Catholic. He also said property values in the neighborhood will be negatively impacted.
Bethlehem Catholic has 745 students and Petruzzelli said teens who walk to and from school go all through the neighborhood.
Ron DeIaco, principal and acting CEO of the public charter school, said 100 “at risk”
children, ages 5-8 years, attend the school year-round. He said they often play outside, with supervision.
“I’m concerned that my children remain safe throughout the school day,” he said. “My job as principal is to make sure they stay safe.”
DeIaco said a fence separating the properties would be a start toward ensuring the safety of the children, but added “anyone can breach a fence. Someone of a mind to come over to observe or chase after children would find a way.”
Bethlehem’s new zoning ordinance does not allow residential treatment facilities within 500 feet of schools, churches or playgrounds. However, Atiyeh applied for zoning approval before that ordinance was passed by City Council in early August, explained Suzanne Borzak, the city’s zoning officer. Even under the old ordinance, Atiyeh’s company must meet numerous requirements to get a special exception.
Atty. Mark Malkames, who represents Atiyeh’s company, said it was a legislative decision to allow residential treatment facilities in a residential area, “irrespective of whether it’s close to a school, a church, a playground -- anything of that nature.” He added city council knew how to put limits on that, “but they didn’t do it when this application was filed.”
While Atiyeh was identified as the principal of Pennsylvania Venture Capital, Inc., he did not testify Tuesday. The man in the hot seat for much of the hearing was David Harte, the company’s vice president of land development.
“This facility is for people who desire to be treated and desire to get well,” said Harte. “They’re voluntarily coming for treatment because they want to become well. They’re dedicated to receiving that treatment. We are going to serve a need for the betterment of Bethlehem.”
The property Atiyeh’s company owns at 2110 Center St. now contains a 2,000-square-foot house that is rented. They propose tearing it down and building a two-and-a-half story structure that totals16,387 square feet.
Confirming a question by Atty. Steven Goudsouzian, who represents neighbors, Harte said that new building will be eight times the size of the home now there.
The treatment facility will be occupied by 44 people– 28 there for treatment, plus a staff of 16.
Harte maintained the facility will not change the character of the neighborhood or be a detriment to the neighborhood. “It’s a residential facility and the property is zoned for a residential treatment facility. We had to locate this facility in a residential zoning district.”
Goudsouzian argued the facility will change the character of the neighborhood. He said as many as 15 neighboring homes on the same side of Center Street are about the same size as the home now at that corner.
But Harte said: “South of this facility, directly fronting on Center Street, are apartment buildings that are at least three times the size of our proposed facility. That would make them about 24 times the size of typical family houses in the neighborhood. I’m going to guess one of those buildings may have as many as 28 beds.”
Harte initially testified that 2110 Center St. was not next to a school.