PITTSTON TWP. — Advocates for veterans say they were shut down again.
After told by Pittston Township officials last month that a United Veterans Beacon House center does not fit the local zoning ordinance, Peter Forbes and Nancy Verespy of The Veterans Coalition tried again to buy a place where veterans can live while learning life skills.
They were disappointed to find that the empty convent and rectory of St. Rocco’s Parish on West Oak Street do not meet Pittston city’s zoning standards either. Each of the rooms must be fitted with personal cooking space to be shared by no more than three unrelated occupants per unit, said city Zoning Officer Harry Smith.
Smith told Verespy she could apply for an exception to the rule, but City Council will probably deny it.
“We’re trying to clean up the city,” Smith said, adding that council just enacted a rental property ordinance holding property owners responsible for their rentals to meet quality standards before it may be occupied.
Granting an exception does not fit where the city is heading and housing units are being held to higher standards to improve living quality, Smith said.
Smith said council granted an exception to the Lenny Bruce House, a home for displaced women in the city, and it’s possible council members might do it for the Beacon House.
Forbes said their mortgage provider pre-approved funds for the three old church buildings — rectory, school and nunnery — in addition to the former Staircase Lounge in neighboring Pittston Township, where they want to run a cafe and culinary school. Veterans could learn cooking skills while working for wages.
Earlier this summer township officials denied their request to make the bypass building a Beacon House, saying the area is not zoned for multi-unit housing. They would not consider an exception. A school does not fit the zoning appropriation, either.
An all-volunteer Beacon House staff helps former soldiers find work after the military and offers job training, transportation to interviews and substance-abuse counseling. Verespy said most of the veterans who live at 25 Beacon Houses in South Dakota and New York stay at the recommendation of the Veterans Administration. Veterans may stay at Beacon Houses for up to two years.
Verespy said some arrive with drug or alcohol problems, but the zero-tolerance policy and the fact that the veterans are at least 30 days sober makes for a safer environment.
Problems with Pa.
The coalition has been working with veterans for more than 30 years in the United States.
Forbes, born in Australia, is president of the non-profit with national headquarters in Pittston Township. He has been trying to build a Beacon House near its headquarters for more than 10 years but has hit opposition at every turn in the Wyoming Valley. The non-profit group also supports veterans in Australia. There are 23 Beacon Houses in New York and 2 in South Dakota where they help Native American veterans, but none in Pennsylvania.
“I think it’s a bloody disgrace for you to treat your veterans this way,” said Forbes, a retired combat medic. Forbes was a soldier in the Australian Army. He served in South Korea during the Korean Conflict. “Why are they sending them to war if they don’t want them when they are back?” Forbes said.
Forbes said, by so-called grandfather laws, his group should be able to have the place without making costly upgrades. Nuns and priests lived in the church buildings without the updates. But the buildings have been vacant for years and Pittston City Zoning Officer Smith said the grandfather rule does not apply because the buildings’ purpose will change.
Clergy used to live there, and Forbes is proposing to house needy veterans, which is not the same thing, Smith said.
Forbes said his group is not giving a hand-out but rather a hand-up to veterans.
Back in July, Verespy was under the impression the bypass property was safe for a culinary school. It’s zoned B-2 commercial, which allows for a restaurant, but a place of education is not permitted there, said township Zoning Officer Terry Best. According to the zoning ordinance, an education center does not fit the B-2 zoning guidelines.
The municipal planning code, a state law, dictates how zoning exceptions are made, Smith said.
To appeal, the coalition must first apply to the zoning officer and get an imminent denial letter. The appeal ends up before the township planning commission, which will make a recommendation to the supervisors who ultimately make the decision.