Expansion of drug treatment center draws opposition

Brooklyn Park residents to take their protest to zoning hearing

December 28, 2000|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Claiming they were kept in the dark about a residential drug treatment center's expansion plans, residents of a Brooklyn Park neighborhood are launching an 11th-hour effort to block the project.

Damascus House, a 17-bed center in the 4200 block of Ritchie Highway, is planning to buy a property nearly in its back yard on Edison Street, expand and renovate an existing house there into a 15-bed facility, and build a pair of four-bedroom transitional homes on adjacent lots.

Damascus House's contract to purchase the property a few streets south of the Baltimore city line is contingent on rectifying a zoning anomaly: The home on the lot it wants to buy is split almost down the middle between residential and commercial zoning.

In order to expand the house into an 8,000-square-foot facility, Damascus House is seeking to change the designation to commercial, with an exception for a lot size 500 square feet smaller than Anne Arundel County requires, according to the project's development consultant, Walter Skayhan.

The county zoning officer has scheduled a hearing on the request for 10:45 a.m. Jan. 4 in the County Council chambers in Annapolis.

Sixty-five neighbors packed a large room at the treatment center Tuesday night to hear details of the expansion plan from Skayhan and Damascus House program director Charlie Mooneyhan, who said it will help everyone because it addresses a growing need to help people overcome drug addiction.

"We know we're part of the solution," said Mooneyhan, a recovering addict who went through the program nine years ago. "We hope by keeping these people here, and helping them, we're helping you."

But the neighbors were having none of it and shouting erupted.

They shouted at Skayhan, who spent part of the meeting with his hand cupping his forehead.

They shouted at Virginia Eidinger, president of the Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association, accusing her of sugar-coating the expansion plans and not telling neighbors what was going on.

They shouted at two of the area's elected officials - County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle of Linthicum and state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno of District 31, both Democrats - claiming that setting the zoning hearing on a weekday morning is designed to ensure that working people won't show up to oppose the project.

Beidle shouted back, saying she didn't appreciate "threatening" telephone calls from area residents to her business phone on Christmas Day.

Ray Bartolomeo, whose back yard abuts the lots earmarked for transitional homes, said elected officials weren't going to have to live near the facility.

"I've never had a problem with them," Bartolomeo said of Damascus House, "But what they have is enough. I don't want it to take over my whole back yard."

Some of the neighbors reported problems with trash and complained that Damascus House's male clients use profane language while outside for smoke breaks, often in earshot of children. But most who chose to speak said they didn't have problems with the facility as it stands.

What seemed to gall neighbors most was that in a tight-knit community where many families have stayed for decades, few knew about the expansion until required zoning signs went up. It was only after neighbor Sandy Bowen knocked on doors to inform others that the meeting was held.

Mooneyhan said the rancor surprises and saddens him. In May, he and Skayhan presented the plan at the Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association's regular meeting. Mooneyhan said he then knocked on some doors in the immediate area.

Sensing little opposition, his staff applied for state and county grants to pay for the $1.2 million expansion. Mooneyhan said the funding has been secured. "We did everything we were asked to do," said Mooneyhan. "We did not expect this kind of hostility."

Eidinger, the association president, faulted neighbors for not reading the group's newsletters.

But, said Vicki Chestnut, the association's membership coordinator, the neighbors wouldn't have gotten the full story. "This was not presented properly," she said.

Debbie Campbell agreed. "Something was skipped - the people," she said.

Campbell grew up in the neighborhood. Her mother lives there, as do her brothers, Vernon and Len Reeder. None knew of the plans until Bowen knocked on their doors, the siblings said.

"I was floored," said Vernon Reeder, whose back yard abuts Damascus House. "My mother lives next door to my sister. She's home during the day. [Mooneyhan] never knocked on her door."

Reeder echoed other neighbors' fear that Brooklyn Heights, designated as a "hot spot" in the state's anti-crime initiative, will be more stigmatized by a larger treatment center.

"They may as well just buy my property from me now, because no normal family with children is going to want to buy it," he said.

The Reeders and Campbell said they plan to take off work and join others in protest at the hearing in Annapolis. Bowen is trying to collect money to rent a bus.

Beidle questions neighbors' contentions that they weren't informed. But the rancor at the meeting was real, and the councilwoman wonders what impact it will have on the zoning case.

"I really think the community is too upset for them to do an expansion," she said.

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