Citing concerns about the definition of a hospital, neighborhood safety and the credibility of the applicant, the Bethlehem Planning Commission denied approval of a proposed 4-story, 125-bed facility for drug, alcohol and psychiatric inpatients at Dewberry and Center streets.
In a two-hour, standing-room-only Town Hall meeting, neighbors of the proposed facility testified about security issues, uses permitted under the zoning code, and a drug free zone around Bethlehem Catholic High School. David Harte, vice president of development for developer Abraham Atiyeh stated the case for a need for a special purpose hospital and the permitted use for such a facility.
Harte said the Planning Commission decision would be appealed. Atiyeh was not present.
Harte, along with attorney Blake Marles, argued that a hospital is a permitted use under the institutional zoning for the five-acre lot at 1838 Center St., and as such, planners should give preliminary approval to the plan.
The primarily residential area is surrounded by a Little League baseball field on Atwood Avenue, on Dewberry, a cemetery, and , a nursing home and independent and assisted living facility.
This is the third proposal for the site. Atiyeh had initially proposed an assisted living facility, which he later found to be unprofitable, and then submitted plans for a three-story apartment building. The assisted living facility was approved with conditions. The apartment complex was denied and that decision is under appeal.
About 17 people spoke against the project, which was described by Harte and Marles as a hospital for psychiatric patients and a drug and alcohol detoxification unit, which would be “operated in accordance with state guidelines for a hospital.”
Harte said the facility would “not be rooms where people will be locked in a room.”
In response to a question from commission vice chairman Stephen Thode about housing violent patients or someone “who would be incarcerated,” Marles said the facility may not be appropriate for those types of people, but “for those who can benefit from a therapeutic center."
Harte said they are not proposing a jail or locked-down facility, giving the example that someone going in for a 28-day treatment could choose to leave, but “as part of the rules they may not be allowed” to sign out.
Several residents, including parents of young children, appealed to the commission to protect children living, attending school and participating in recreational activities in the area.
Michael Grasso, a coach at Becahi with a 750 student enrollment, said he sees students dealing with depression and drug problems, and ”everyone here recognizes the need for such a facility.” There are sites for such a facility, but it should be away from the greater population, he said. “We are pleading and praying” that the commission will not approve the project.
Questioned by the commissioners about other options for the property, Harte said, “We did try to build apartments, but the neighbors opposed apartments.
“We tried to reach a settlement with the residents,” he said, noting after the meeting that the developer offered to scale back the size of the apartment complex.
A hearing on the apartment building appeal is scheduled for early next month.