Church told it cannot operate recovery house
Zoning Hearing Board rules against facility already serving drug and alcohol addicts in West Park
An Allentown church cannot operate a recovery house in West Park after city zoners ruled it doesn’t meet the definition of a group home.
The Zoning Hearing Board voted 2-1 this week to deny Allentown Victory Church’s request to consider the already operating home at 1447 W. Hamilton St. a special-exception use in the city’s high-density residential zoning district.
Pastor Matthew Catricola said up to 11 recovering drug and alcohol addicts, including inmates on work release and people recently experiencing homelessness, have lived at one time in the three-story, 4,500square-foot twin since the Christian-living recovery home opened in February. He asked the zoning board to allow up to 15 residents in the 15-room building.
Prospective residents must agree to a number of commitments and restrictions to live in the home. Those accepted are asked to commit for at least nine months to a recovery program but can leave at any time. To stay, residents must attend Bible studies, prayer meetings and church services, must look for a job and must complete community service.
They split rent, divvy up chores and accompany one another to off-site substance abuse recovery meetings and therapy appointments, Catricola said. The state has approved the
home as a residence for people on parole or work release.
Catricola said he, a house manager or an assistant house manager are on site at least 18 hours a day.
Allentown permits “large group homes” of up to 12 people by special exception in the highdensity residential area. But the zoning ordinance, board member Scott Unger noted, prohibits group homes from serving as drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, or adult pre-release correctional facilities such as work release, halfway houses or “similar uses.”
The home more appropriately meets the definition of an institutional use, Unger said, which isn’t allowed in this zoning district unless an applicant demonstrates the property cannot feasibly be used for any permitted use.
Alan Salinger disagreed, pointing to a letter from a Lehigh County Drug & Alcohol Abuse Services official affirming the recovery house is not itself a drug and alcohol facility because no treatment services are occurring at the location. Similarly, the house isn’t an official pre-release correctional facility, Salinger said, but simply meets the housing requirements with which parolees must comply.
Board Chairman Robert Knauer joined Unger in voting to deny the application.
“Based on what I heard about the program and requirements, it’s very similar to the prohibitions for a group home,” Knauer said. “I don’t think it squarely fits into the definition of a group home.”
The board’s decision was met with applause from about a dozen West Park residents concerned about the recovery house’s impact on the neighborhood.
Merrily Starkey, who lives on Court Street at the rear of the recovery house, complained about the amount of trash and recycling she said was left haphazardly in the back prior to the church getting a dumpster.
Daniel Armstrong, who lives in the 1500 block of Turner Street, urged the board to keep in mind that the church started the recovery house prior to securing proper zoning approvals.
“If they can’t even follow basic zoning procedures, we shouldn’t let them experiment with turning a single-family home into an institution in our neighborhood,” he asked.
Nicholas Sabatine III, representing Catricola and the church, said they would most likely appeal the board’s decision to the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas. He hoped the city would allow the recovery house to remain in operation in the interim.
Unger and Knauer overlooked the voluntary nature of the recovery program, Sabatine said. The government does not require any of the residents to live at this specific house or complete Catricola’s faith-based program.
Allentown zoners denied Allentown Victory Church’s request to operate a 15-person recovery house at 1447 Hamilton St., which is in the city’s high density residential zoning district.