EXETER TWP. — Worried neighbors are circulating petitions to oppose a proposed inpatient addiction treatment facility they say would compromise the municipality’s already limited emergency services and could put residents at risk.
“Just for the record, we’re not opposed to drug treatment centers, but we have little police coverage here, volunteer fire and ambulance services and no cell phone service. And there are a dozen or so kids living within a half a mile of that building,” Arthur Becker, 37, said Sunday. “There aren’t even any sidewalks or street lights. There’s no infrastructure.”
Becker, wife Joyce and other neighbors sprang into action on Tuesday after word got out an application was made to Exeter Township’s zoning authority to change the R1 residential zoning governing the former Sarah J. Dymond Elementary School on Sutton Creek Road in Harding to accommodate a short-term inpatient counseling center.
The Beckers live close to the site on Sutton Creek Road and were stunned to hear about the proposal when a neighbor asked them to circulate one of the petitions opposing it.
The matter is expected to be raised by residents at tonight’s township supervisors meeting, though not officially dealt with because it’s still before the zoning board.
Not everyone opposes the idea, though. Some supporters cite the need for such facilities and say patients pose minimal risk since they are there to get better.
Details of the proposed treatment facility have not been made public, but Wyoming Area School District solicitor Jarrett Ferentino said the district has transferred the property to Dr. Robert Dompkosky, a Mountain Top physician and head of Addiction Alliance LLC. And Dompkosky is currently working to open another residential drug treatment center on North River Street in Wilkes-Barre.
Efforts to reach Dompkosky for comment on Saturday and Sunday were unsuccessful.
To proceed with the plan in Harding, Dompkosky would have to obtain a zoning variance. The township’s zoning officer has denied the initial request, according to Robert Kile, chairman of Exeter Township’s Board of Supervisors. Next it will likely be considered by the township’s zoning board, which is expected to meet June 25.
The township supervisors are set to meet at 7 p.m. today, and though the matter is not before them, Kile expects the topic to come up. Dozens of residents have made it known to him they will be attending in the hopes of asking questions and speaking out.
While the Beckers praised the quality of the local emergency services, they voiced concerns over the agencies’ ability to handle the increased demands that would be placed on them by an inpatient facility opening up, noting that the township police department is sometimes unmanned during overnight hours and relies on state police to cover calls during that time
Harding is a rural village, almost exclusively residential, tucked in the hills along the Susquehanna River in Exeter Township. The handful of businesses located there are mostly situated along the main thoroughfare, State Route 92. The property in question sits approximately a mile back from that corridor, up a wooded winding country road and amid modest houses on wooded lots.
A few years ago, the Beckers found a man wandering through their yard at 4:30 a.m. and after he took off running into the woods when confronted, Arthur Becker called the police, he recalled.
“It took the troopers from the Wyoming barracks 45 minutes to get here,” he said. It turned out the unidentified man had overturned his car on the road a short distance from where he was first spotted.
“That’s concerning,” Arthur added.
Joyce Becker, 38, has lived in Harding all her life and said she’s also deeply concerned that changing the zoning of the parcel to accommodate a commercial use in such a rural neighborhood would set a dangerous precedent.
“People like to make comments about us up here being uneducated and that’s why we’re opposed to this or feel the way we do,” she said. “I have a master’s degree. My husband has a master’s degree. We’re educated people and we’re worried.”
Arthur gave voice to that worry.
“I just can’t let this go on. I can’t raise my children right here with something like that right there,” he said, referring to his two young daughters, one of whom he taught to ride a bicycle in the former school’s parking lot.
Words of support
Carol Coolbaugh, who lived in Harding for more than 30 years and knows from personal experience the struggles and sometimes tragic consequences of addiction, cautioned against opposing the proposed treatment facility out-of-hand.
The 67-year-old suffered the loss of her son to a drug overdose nearly 10 years ago. That son and her daughter attended the former Harding elementary school and Coolbaugh herself spent years volunteering with the parent teacher association there.
“People are nervous about things they don’t understand. I, unfortunately, understand better than a lot of people about this stuff,” she said. “And I know (addicts) sometimes do bad things, so I get why people are concerned, but you have to keep in mind that if they’re in a rehab facility that means they want to get better and change that behavior.”
Coolbaugh lives in nearby West Pittston now and is the founder of the local Grief Recovery after a Substance Passing (GRASP) support group. She urged her former neighbors to keep an open mind.
“And, you know, if someone in a place like doesn’t want to be there anymore, they’re going to leave. They’re not going to hang around the place,” she said. “They’re either in there and they’re sober, so they’re not a problem to anybody, or they’re going home, not hanging around.”
Petition going around
Colleen Weiss, 48, of Harding, is one of several residents helping to circulate copies of the petition, which states opposition to what it alternately refers to as a chemical treatment facility and methadone clinic on the site.
Also a lifelong resident of Harding, Weiss said she understands the frustration felt on both sides of the issue and sympathizes with those affected by drug addiction.
“We as neighbors need to help,” she said. Then added, “We still need to do it in a way it can be sustained and supported by everyone.”
Weiss is the owner and operator of Sisters Salon, which she runs out of her home in the Hex Acres section of Harding, a few miles away from the site. She said she has spoken to 75 to 100 people about the issue and only two have been in favor of opening a treatment center there. Among the most frequent criticisms she has heard is the lack of notice and awareness of the proposal.
“When I applied for the beauty shop, any yard-sharing neighbor received paperwork and if anyone didn’t want my salon (there) they had the chance to voice their opinion,” she said. “So, we are voicing our opinion as to our deep concerns.”
“Hopefully, the supervisors we elected are hearing them,” Weiss added.
Geri Gibbons contributed to this story