W-B of­fi­cials sat­is­fied home not be­ing used as a ‘sober house’

Of­fi­cials re­cently met with the pas­tors run­ning a min­istry pro­gram out of a city home.

The Citizens' Voice - - Front Page - BY STEVE MOCARSKY STAFF WRITER

WILKES-BARRE — City of­fi­cials and res­i­dents of the Par­sons sec­tion are sat­is­fied that a con­tro­ver­sial “sober house” is not be­ing op­er­ated in the neigh­bor­hood. But they plan to keep an eye on it.

Rick Voelker, who lives near the home at 224 Austin Ave., told coun­cil mem­bers at a meet­ing last week that he, his wife, an­other neigh­bor­hood cou­ple and sev­eral city of­fi­cials met on March 22 with the two pas­tors over­see­ing a pro­gram at the house.

Voelker said the Rev. Wayne Ni­chol, of the ad­ja­cent Par­sons Bap­tist Church, and the Rev. Joe Roach, of First Prim­i­tive Methodist Church of Nan­ti­coke, told them four men were liv­ing at the home as part of “a Chris­tian min­istry pro­gram.”

“We asked, ‘What pro­gram?’ Rev. Ni­chol and Rev. Roach both said, ‘It does not have a name, it’s just some­thing we do on our own,’” Voelker said.

Voelker said the pas­tors as­sured them that no one in the house has a crim­i­nal back­ground or record, “no one is an al­co­holic and no none has or had a drug prob­lem.”

“The pas­tors also as­sured us that the only money the church is mak­ing is $500 a month that all four men pay to­gether,” he said.

Neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents first brought their con­cerns to Coun­cil­man Bill Bar­rett, who rep­re­sents that sec­tion of the city, and then the rest of city coun­cil in early Fe­bru­ary when they first no­ticed that sev­eral peo­ple were liv­ing in the house they be­lieved was owned by the church.

Luzerne County as­sess­ment records list Welsh Bap­tist Church of Lau­rel Run as the prop­erty owner. The billing ad­dress for the prop­erty is the same as the phys­i­cal ad­dress of the home. It is not listed as a tax-ex­empt prop­erty.

Res­i­dents and Bar­rett sus­pected the prop­erty was be­ing op­er­ated as ei­ther a for­profit sober house or half­way house in vi­o­la­tion of lo­cal zon­ing laws.

Mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials across the state have com­plained about nu­mer­ous un­reg­u­lated sober houses — also called re­cov­ery houses — open­ing up in res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods over the past few years in re­sponse to the opi­oid epi­demic plagu­ing the na­tion and an ever-grow­ing num­ber of re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts.

City Ad­min­is­tra­tor Ted Wam­pole said it ap­pears the house is not in vi­o­la­tion of any lo­cal zon­ing or­di­nances, which limit the num­ber of res­i­dents who are not fam­ily mem­bers to four per res­i­dence.

Wam­pole be­lieves a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween church of­fi­cials and neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents re­sulted in ru­mors and “mis­in­for­ma­tion.”

“We agree there had to be bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the church and the res­i­dents,” Wam­pole said. “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion here is the key.”

Nei­ther Ni­chol nor Roach could be reached for com­ment Mon­day.

Voelker said the pas­tors told the res­i­dents and city of­fi­cials that the house will “shut down” when the four men liv­ing there fin­ish the pro­gram and get back on their feet.

Also, there will be “no more homes of this type go­ing up in the Par­sons neigh­bor­hood,” Voelker said he was told.

Both pas­tors “called this a hos­tile neigh­bor­hood,” Voelker added. “We told them we’re not hos­tile, we just care about our neigh­bor­hood and the qual­ity of life that we have had here for many years.”

MARK MO­RAN / STAFF pho­tog­ra­pher

Pas­tors of two area churches have been us­ing a home at 224 Austin Ave. in Wilkes-barre as part of ‘a Chris­tian min­istry pro­gram.’

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