EXETER TWP. — In little more than a month since news of a proposed drug and alcohol treatment center spread through their neighborhood, residents of Harding have gone from kitchen table talk to circulating petitions to hosting community meetings in opposition to the plan.
Now some 280 of them are forming a nonprofit — Exeter Township Citizens Ltd. — dedicated to protecting the rural nature of the village and preventing the kind of zoning changes that would lead to more businesses moving in.
Harding is an unincorporated village in Exeter Township.
The group came together during loosely organized meetings in June and has since named a six-member board of directors. The board is in the process of applying for 501(c)3 tax exempt status, according to President Janine Dymond, and is actively fundraising to cover legal fees and expenses. The bulk of those expenses are expected to come, at least for now, from participating in an appeal filed Tuesday in Luzerne County Court to block Dr. Robert Dompkosky from moving ahead with his plans to open the treatment facility.
“We’re taking donations on a voluntary basis right now, raising funds to keep Harding rural and working with our supervisors in doing that,” Ms. Dymond, 57, said this week. “Hopefully, what we’re going to be doing is complementing our local government. We want to be a team, or an asset, not just in this case, but in general in protecting the character of the community,”
An emergency room physician from Mountain Top, Dompkosky is proposing a private, for-profit residential addiction treatment center for up to 50 patients on the site of the former Sarah J. Dymond Elementary School on Sutton Creek Road. To move ahead with those plans, he needs a special zoning exception because the property is in a residential area.
He and his lawyer, Bruce J. Phillips of Plains, claimed they won an automatic approval when the township’s Zoning Hearing Board missed a deadline by which to hold a public hearing on the matter. Township supervisors and a group of nearly 90 residents have since filed legal appeals to contest that.
Dompkosky and Phillips could not be reached for comment at press time despite numerous attempts to reach them.
‘Not set up for that’
The legal fight will likely be long and costly, Exeter Township Citizens Ltd. secretary Michelle McHale said this week, though she declined to speculate about exact dollar amounts. Attorney Mark McNealis, of Sweet Valley, is representing the residents in the appeal and hasn’t yet billed the group for the work he’s done so far, she said.
“I’ve never really done anything along these lines. I’m usually in the background, but this time I’ve taken a step forward,” said McHale, 33. The reason she felt compelled to do so was she considers the proposed zoning change a real threat to the fabric of the neighborhood.
“I came here from Philadelphia to live rurally. And it’s very hard to find a place this rural, but in close proximity — within 10 or 15 minutes — of a grocery store or a mall. … It just happened to be that this place was the perfect fit,” she said. “I found my perfect forever home and now someone wants to put an active 24-hour-a-day and 7-day-a-week business in the middle of it.”
“We’re not set up for that,” she added.
Initially, through widely circulated petitions and during a public meeting of township supervisors, dozens of residents voiced their concerns about the nature of Dompkosky’s plans. His proposed Sutton Creek Center for Change prompted many to wonder aloud about whether the patients being treated there would be restricted to the property or be free to wander the neighborhood. McHale and Dymond were quick to stress their group is sympathetic to the plight of people suffering addictions and that aspect of the proposed business is not their main objection.
“I have empathy and understanding about drug addiction. I work with families and I see the effects of the opioid crisis. We all do. And we all know someone who’s struggled with some form of it, but this is just not the place for (a treatment center),” Dymond said. “It’s too close to too many homes and not a community that can support any business that would be operating 24 hours a day every day.”
The one upside to the recent turmoil is the way the community has reacted, Dymond said. It’s the first time so many of her neighbors have gotten involved in a cause, organized and worked together to support each other, she said.
“I just drove around the other day with one of our other board members for, like, three hours and I barely knew her before. In fact, I didn’t know any of the other board members at all before this started,” she said. “I’m really impressed with the way this crew has jumped in.”
In addition to Dymond, who previously participated in the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, and McHale, the citizens group is led by vice president Arthur Becker, treasurer Rhonda Lambert and board members Robert Berry and Scott McHale. The group is finalizing plans for future meetings and fundraising will be ongoing.
In the meantime, residents, township officials and Dompkosky wait to see what court action is taken on the appeals of the doctor’s claim of deemed approval for the project.