Veterans group: Why close door on us?

By Jon O'Connell

July 26, 2013

PITTSTON TWP. — The building has a food-service-grade kitchen and plenty of cleared space in the backyard for a garden. There’s a shed for smokers, and the building sits two doors down from The Veterans Coalition international headquarters.

The former nightclub, The Staircase on the Pittston Bypass, has all the makings of a Veteran’s Coalition Beacon House to serve homeless veterans, organizers say. But the township won’t let them have it.

After a two-year-long zoning code update, the property along the Pittston Bypass is zoned B-2 and, according to the new code, does not allow residency, said township Administrator John Bonita.

The Beacon House program works to reduce military veteran homelessness and lets veterans stay for up to two years as they learn job skills and find employment. In another track, veterans 75 and older can stay long-term in private rooms, so permission for residency is a must. There are 25 Beacon Houses in New York and two in South Dakota.

The zoning code was approved after the coalition made significant planning progress, said President Peter J. Forbes. The volunteer nonprofit organization had secured funding to buy the property, which was most recently a veterinary hospital.

Forbes was in the building almost daily last winter, working out the floorplan, he said. A stack of rolled architect’s drawings might be the only thing to show for his efforts.

Rezoning planning

Bonita said the township began re-working the township zoning code in 2010 and, after two years of conferences and hearings, enacted it in February, two months after Forbes began his planning for the building.

The township’s zoning officer originally told the group it could apply for a zoning exemption, which would affect only the Beacon House. The building would return to its former B-2 status if the group should ever vacate, Forbes said.

But Bonita said the township solicitor advised the supervisors that exemption is not an option. Rather, the zoning ordinance would have to be rewritten, and that would set an unwanted precedent, Bonita said.

As Forbes explained the group’s plight while standing under a large Lewith & Freeman Real Estate sign, a lone jogger trotted past, pumping his fist and hollering, “Let the veterans in!”

Finding an ideal spot

“Most of the time we get buildings that should have been bulldozed,” Forbes said, explaining that when the building served animals, the owners put about $1 million into converting it from a concert hall to a state-of-the-art animal hospital, making it near move-in-ready for the coalition.

Municipal officials have suggested looking into a nearby location; the new CenterPointe industrial complex has a more flexible zoning designation that is appropriate for a Beacon House.

The supervisors are willing to help the coalition find a place they can be comfortable, but Forbes’ insistence on the bypass property makes it hard to move forward, Bonita said.

Township Supervisor Steven Rinaldi said he wants to see the veterans house built, but re-writing the zoning code they just put into effect would be taking a step backward. “Anybody would be a fool not to want to help the veterans,” he said. “(But) if we set an example for one, we’re going to have to follow through with all the others.”

Forbes believes there is a misconception about what the 33-year-old program does, he said.

“People think we run shelters,” Forbes said, explaining that they fight stigmas that grisly, drug-addict Vietnam vets hang around their centers smoking and leaving behind piles of beer cans.

The centers run on strict rules that prohibit alcohol use and keep residents busy running the center and seeking employment. The plan would have included a full-service cafe run by veterans who are paid workers and would serve the public, Forbes said.

Coalition Executive Director Nancy Verespy said she was shocked that no one from the township government or community has asked about what goes on at a Beacon House.

“Not a person has contacted us to ask, ‘Well what are you going to do?” Verespy said.

The group tried unsuccessfully to put a Beacon House in Wilkes-Barre a few years ago. The site they tried to occupy was rezoned not to allow multiple residencies, Verespy said.