Neighbors, parents and students opposed strongly to a proposed residential drug and alcohol treatment facility on Dewberry Avenue in Bethlehem grilled the applicant’s witnesses for more than five hours Wednesday night at a sometimes testy zoning hearing board meeting.
The board, shortly after 11 p.m., decided to continue the hearing to 6 p.m. Oct. 31, because of the large number of persons adamant that their opposition be heard.
Developer Abraham Atiyeh is seeking a special exception to convert the vacant at 111 Dewberry Ave. into a 70-bed facility offering voluntary inpatient substance abuse rehabilitation. The building is 300 yards from in a residential area surrounded by playgrounds, an athletic field, homes, apartments and a residence and nursing facility for the elderly.
Joseph Curran, chief executive officer of Malvern Institute, a Chester County based treatment facility, described in detail the treatment model used at Malvern. He said he is ”not 100 percent certain, but I believe we will be running it.” Resident Nelson Klein asked Curran if Malvern had a contract to operate the facility. “We have an agreement. I believe it is a done deal.”
The sale of the property to Atiyeh’s Penn Venture Capital LLC by the church and the operation of the facility are contingent upon the zoning board granting a special exception for the facility.
Calvary Senior Pastor Larry Burd, who supports the treatment facility and testified to its need in the community, said Bethlehem Catholic High School officials toured the property, but Atiyeh has made the only offer. Burd said he believes some priests and teachers from Becahi would want to go to the treatment facility and “share their faith.” Calvary relocated to a new Bethlehem Township church in February to accommodate a growing membership, he said.
Curran said Malvern uses a 30-day voluntary inpatient stay, with an average stay of 21 days. The average turnover rate is five admissions a day, he noted. Malvern, in operation since 1948 in a residential area, is two miles from the nearest school, and closer to a church, Curran testified in response to audience questions. Asked if he sees any adverse impact on the neighborhood, Curran responded, “I do not. I would not want that to occur on any level.” He emphasized that Malvern does not expose its patients to any interaction with neighbors or outside facilities.
Concerns, some voiced angrily, focused primarily on the location of the facility next to a drug-free school zone, the ability of inpatients to walk away freely, no criminal checks on patients, and the potential for drugs to enter the community. Under questioning, Curran admitted that drugs have been brought on site at Malvern and controlled substances are used for treatment at Malvern. “Then it is not a drug-free facility,” responded a resident.
Nicholas Cordaro, a Laurel Drive resident, asked Curran, “Isn’t there going to be a temptation to deal drugs to kids 300-yards away?”
“No,” Curran responded. “Kids are buying drugs in the community.”
The 80-bed Malvern Institute is a for-profit facility. Asked what factors were used to determine the profitability of this facility, Curran responded, “Based on the number of patients I get from this area, having a program here would be attractive.”
A second appeal by Atiyeh for a special exception to operate a substance abuse residential treatment facility for juveniles at 3485 Linden St., near Santee Road, also was on the agenda, but never discussed. The applicant is proposing a two-story 60-bed voluntary inpatient facility in a wooded area.
Atiyeh is seeking a variance for buffering for a 21-parking space lot, sidewalk and curb requirements. He is challenging the zoning opinion that the parking lot be separated from the street curb line by a curb, plantings and sidewalk, and three-foot buffer and screening be installed between the parking lot and residential district that abuts directly or across the street.