More than 220 people turned out Monday for the first of four scheduled hearings on a United Methodist church agency's proposal to build a$5 million foster care complex for abused children near Fallston.
The hearing, before the county's zoning hearing examiner, lasted 2 1/2 hours and centered on testimony from project supporters.
The United Methodist Board of Child Care has proposed building a facility to house up to 60 children -- ages 2 through 12 -- on land the agency owns at Harford and Reckord roads. The agency is seeking a special zoning exception because the property is zoned for agriculture.
The state has granted the board a permit to use up to 6,500 gallons of ground water a day at the site, and the county Department of Planning and Zoning has recommended approval of the project, provided15 conditions, including road improvements, are met.
However, at the hearing, some area residents continued their opposition to the project, contending the facility's drain on the area water supply wouldbe detrimental to their wells.
Salvatore Glorioso, president of the Fallston Meadows Homeowners Association, which represents 45 families, was among those who attended in opposition to the project. .
"We think the facility should be built. Anybody who would oppose thatwould be a fool, but it doesn't belong in a rural residential area,"said Glorioso. "It belongs in an area that can properly serve it with public water and public sewer."
At Monday's hearing, every seat in the County Council chamber was filled, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder along three of the four chamber walls, and others peered in from the open doorway.
Supporters of the project wore buttons that said "United Methodist Board of Child Care." Others, like Glorioso, wore adhesive-backed labels that read "No 4192," a reference to the zoning case number the project has been assigned.
Claude Libis, the executive director of the Board of Child Care, was a key witness at the hearing. His testimony lasted more than an hour. He was questioned by Bel Air-based lawyer Michael Leaf, who represents the church agency, and Robert F. Kahoe Jr., the Harford people's counsel, representing residents opposed to the project.
Libis testified the agency proposes to build five cottages -- two for emergency shelter and three for long-term care -- for physically and sexually abused children removed from homes. Each cottage would be able to house up to 12 children, he said. Older siblings up to age 17 also may be accepted for long-term care at the facility, Libis testified.
The complex would serve a maximum of 60 children, about 40 of whom would attend public school during the day, Libis said. Children would be accepted on the basis of referrals from the county Department of Social Services and fromBaltimore County and Baltimore City agencies, he said. The average length of a child's stay is two-and-a-half-years, he said.
During cross-examination, Kahoe questioned Libis for about 15 minutes about the agency's written guidelines for accepting children at the proposedshelter.
"The cutoff age is 17," said Libis.
"Is that a written policy?" asked Kahoe.
"It's in our charter and by-laws and approved by the Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church that we will accept children," replied Libis.
Kahoe then asked, "What are your policies for admission?"
"We do not admit children with serious delinquent problems. We do not admit retarded or handicapped children. We would not admit arsonists," said Libis. "We would not admit any child that we felt could in any way become a threat to the community."
Libis said three people would review each application for care, and if there are any questions, a child may be evaluated by a staffpsychiatrist before admission. He said that three or four times a year, administrators at the board's Baltimore County shelter for abusedteens on Gaither Road find they must put a child into the care of another agency or a hospital because the child has more serious behavioral or psychological problems than anticipated.
At the end of Libis' testimony, many in the audience applauded.
A neighbor of the church agency's Baltimore County home for teens also testified on behalf of the Harford complex.
"I live three blocks from the Gaither Road facility," testified Jerome Goodman, vice president of the Rockdale Civic Improvement Association. "I moved there in 1965, but it wasn't until about three years ago that I learned there was a group home located near my house. I found out when they came around to ask the neighbors if we would mind if they expanded. We never knew they were there, they were so unobtrusive."
Hearing examiner William Casey refused to allow the testimony of another witness called by Leaf -- the Rev. John H. Niles, pastor at Fallston Presbyterian Church -- after Kahoe objected to the testimony. He argued the pastor's statements would be opinion, not fact.
Niles said he planned to testify in support of the project as a representative of Harford Interfaith CommunityServices, a non-profit community action agency.
At least four hearings are scheduled for the case. Next week's hearing will continue testimony from project supporters.
Kahoe, who took on the case at the request of the People's Counsel Advisory Board, will present witnesses at later hearings.
The People's Counsel Advisory Board recommended Kahoe to take the case after Glorioso and members of the Fallston Meadows Homeowners Association made a presentation to the board seeking legal representation.
Other public hearings are scheduled for Sept. 23, Oct. 21 and Oct. 28 in the County Council chambers on Level A of the County Courthouse in Bel Air. All hearings are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.