At least half of the approximately 65 residents who showed up for a Bethlehem zoning hearing Wednesday night were sworn in en masse to testify regarding plans to build two drug and alcohol treatment centers.
But they never got the chance.
Most of the hearing, which ran intermittently from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., was spent with a representative of developer Abraham Atiyeh outlining the proposals for the facilities. Residents and a passle of lawyers who object to the centers are expected to have their say when the hearings resume at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16 and again Thursday, Oct. 18.
David Harte, vice president of Atiyeh's company, Pennsylvania Venture Capital, said one of the treatment centers would be a 28-bed facility in a new building on less than an acre at 2110 Center St. The other would be a 47-bed facility housed in a 35,000-square-foot new building at 2349 Linden St. -- site of the vacant Moose & Bug flower shop.
The centers would be for voluntary inpatient substance abuse rehabilitation programs. Most patients would stay for 14-day or 28-day stints. Harte's testimony about the Linden Street site was cut short, but he said the Center Street site would not be a "lockdown" facility and program residents would be able to leave if they chose.
Despite objections from Bethlehem City Solicitor Chris Spadoni and attorney Steven N. Goudsouzian, who was hired by neighbors of the property, Harte testified that there is a need for drug and alcohol treatment centers in the Lehigh Valley because local hospitals currently have to refer addicts to rehabs elsewhere.
"Are you aware of any dangers these people present to the community?" Mark Malkames, Atiyeh's attorney, asked Harte.
Harte said because the rehab residents would be at the facility voluntarily in an effort to shake their addiction, they would pose no greater danger than members of the surrounding community. "Somebody could be living down the street and addicted to prescription drugs," he said. "We would have a bed for them."
Spadoni and Goudsouzian argued that Harte, an engineer, wasn't qualified to testify outside his area of expertise.
Atiyeh is seeking a special exception to build in the residential zoning districts under the old zoning laws. The new zoning ordinance prohibits new substance abuse treatment centers within 500 feet of schools. Atiyeh's company submitted their applications months before the new zoning ordinance was adopted.
The Center Street address is near Bethlehem Catholic High School and the Linden Street site is near Spring Garden Elementary School. Representatives of Bethlehem Catholic and Bethlehem Area School District are expected to object to the plans when they get the chance to testify.
Speaking after the hearing, Gloria Keels, who lives in a condominium adjacent to the former Moose & Bug, said she fears for the safety of her children if the center opens. The back yards of the Lindentownes Condos sit across a narrow private access road from the Moose & Bug and children use the access road to walk home from school.
She said the traffic and noise from the 47-bed facility would greatly reduce their quality of life and she'd be afraid to let him children out to play in the back yard if the rehab's residents are free to leave.
"Your privacy is gone," agreed neighbor Karen Mack. "It's so invasive."