Lawyer claims approval for proposed rehab site in Exeter Twp.; official disagrees

By Jennifer L. Henn - For Times Leader
Exeter Township resident and mother Michelle McHale expresses her opposition to a proposed addiction treatment facility while addressing township supervisors Monday night. - Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader

EXETER TWP. — A lawyer for the doctor proposing an addiction treatment facility here said Tuesday his client already has the zoning approval needed to proceed with his plans because township officials failed to meet a key deadline.

But the township zoning hearing board’s attorney called that “a legal fiction.”

Notification of the “deemed approval” was published in the local newspaper and given to a dozen of the property’s immediate neighbors Tuesday, according to Bruce J. Phillips, who is representing Dr. Robert Dompkosky in his efforts to open an inpatient rehabilitation center on Sutton Creek Road in Harding. In the notices, Phillips claims that because the township did not hold a hearing on Dompkosky’s request for a special exception to the zoning laws or render a decision on the matter within 60 days of his filing for it, the approval is automatically granted.

As a result, the notice reads, township residents who want to appeal have 30 days from Tuesday to do so.

According to the Pennsylvania Municipalities Code governing zoning boards, the first hearing on a request must be held within “60 days of receipt of the applicant’s application, unless the applicant has agreed in writing to an extension of time.” Township zoning officer Carl Albert denied Dompkosky’s initial application Feb. 7. A week later, the doctor filed for a special exception, appealing to the zoning board to overturn Albert’s decision.

Phillips said he and Dompkosky, of Mountain Top, tried to coordinate with the township to schedule a hearing, trading letters with suggested dates for months, but nothing happened.

Thomas J. Killino, solicitor for the township’s zoning board, was hired in March and said he jumped right in, negotiating for a hearing date that worked for both sides and gave enough notice to inform the public. He said Phillips and Dompkosky were the ones dragging their feet while the township was acting in good faith and he doubts Phillips’ position will be upheld.

“We’re not going to let him try to leverage procedure to sway the balance in his favor,” Killino said. “Obviously, this is a hot-button issue in this community.”

The zoning board is set to hear Dompkosky’s case June 25 and decide whether to grant his request for a special exception in the residential neighborhood “based on the merits of the proposal” sometime after that, the solicitor said.

“If (Phillips and Dompkosky) want to challenge it at that point, that’s up to them,” Killino said Tuesday. “I have a feeling this is going to be a long and healthy legal battle.”

Township residents packed a supervisors meeting Monday to oppose the proposed rehab center.

‘Lot of misinformation’

Even if the township hadn’t missed the deadline, the board would have no grounds to deny Dompkosky’s request, said Phillips, of Wetzel, Phillips, Rodgers & Falcone in Plains. The township’s zoning laws don’t specifically mention residential treatment centers like the one being proposed, let alone regulate them, he said. That means they can’t be used to block one.

In the meantime, Phillips said he and Dompkosky plan to be at the June 25 hearing if only to help quell residents’ concerns and explain what the doctor intends to do at the site.

“A lot of misinformation is being spread out there and Dr. Dompkosky is not trying to hide anything from anybody,” he said. “We want to meet with the people, give them an opportunity to ask questions and have them answered. I don’t know if that’s going to happen at the hearing, but we want to do that.”

Dompkosky could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Phillips said the plan is to create a private treatment center for people struggling with addictions of all kinds — drugs, alcohol and gambling among them. It would not be a methadone clinic, as some have speculated, he said. Instead, it would be similar to the addiction rehab center Dompkosky is developing in Wilkes-Barre.

“It’s not what people are conjuring up in their minds, talking about a criminal element and people hanging around outside,” Phillips insisted. “I understand the concerns. Really I do. But this would not be that kind of place.”

Township Supervisor Robert Kile said he believes Dompkosky and his lawyer are trying to bait officials there into making public comments against the proposal, giving the developer legal grounds for appeal if it is rejected by the zoning board. If any of them come out against the plans now, Kile said, Dompkosky can argue he was never given a fair hearing.

“(This) is meant to be inflammatory,” he said. “It’s a Hail Mary play.”

Exeter Township resident and mother Michelle McHale expresses her opposition to a proposed addiction treatment facility while addressing township supervisors Monday night.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1_TTL060518ExeterTwpMtg_6-5.jpgExeter Township resident and mother Michelle McHale expresses her opposition to a proposed addiction treatment facility while addressing township supervisors Monday night. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader

By Jennifer L. Henn

For Times Leader