Witnesses testifying in opposition to a proposed addictions treatment facility adjacent to told the city’s Zoning Hearing Board Wednesday night how the center would have a negative impact on the school and the community.
Citing safety concerns for the 758 students at Becahi, which is contiguous to the property at 111 Dewberry Ave., Becahi principal John Petruzzelli said, “Association of narcotics addiction with violence and crime will unquestionably color the decisions of families in their choice of whether or not to send their sons and daughters to Bethlehem Catholic. I am very concerned that they will deem the area as potentially unsafe for their children.”
Further, Petruzzelli said, the facility would negatively impact the continued existence of the school and its property value, as well as that of the surrounding residential area, which includes playgrounds, Little League fields, churches, a day care center, senior living facility and nursing care center.
Developer Abraham Atiyeh is seeking a special exception to operate a 70-bed inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in the vacant Calvary Baptist Church. This was the fifth hearing on Atiyeh’s appeal.
Echoing the issues of children’s safety were witnesses William Nelson, former principal and director of student services, and Gregory Zebrowski, a former teacher and behavior analyst at Centennial School at . Both witnesses outlined their work in addictions programs, and agreed treatment facilities are needed. Both reside in the neighborhood.
“My concern is the folks can come and go,’’ from the unsecured facility, Nelson said, emphasizing, “Reality is we are talking about the potential for children to interact with drug addicts.” He concluded, “I don’t think you can find a much worse [site].”
Zebrowski, who objected to “putting an addictive clientele next to a high school,” said he has worked with addicted youth who were irrational, agitated, anxiety-driven and unpredictable. The “most serious concern” is residents could walk out and interact with children, he said, adding, the operator “cannot guarantee that interactions would not take place.”
Blake Marles, representing Atiyeh’s Penn Venture Capital firm, objected to testimony by Tracy Samuelson, the city’s assistant director of planning and zoning. Marles characterized Samuelson as “a biased witness,” as a city employee, prompting a 20-minute recess to determine if testimony would be allowed.
City Council solicitor Christopher Spadoni said Samuelson was presenting a professional opinion about whether a special exception would be in the “public welfare of the city of Bethlehem.”
Allowed to testify, Samuelson said that a 70-bed facility, “a facility of this large size is not compatible with the neighborhood.” Special exceptions are intended to be in harmony with the community, Samuelson stated, noting that in her professional opinion it is not. After lengthy questioning by Marles, Samuelson gave the analogy, “The elephant may not be as compatible as a puppy.”
Several neighborhood residents also spoke about safety issues, including two who wanted to present a petition in opposition, signed by nearly 140 residents.
The board will meet again at 6 p.m. Jan 25 to hear testimony by a witness for Atiyeh and take concluding statements.