Damascus House votes to proceed with plan, consult with neighbors

Third party called in to mediate on design

March 09, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The board of directors of a Brooklyn Park drug treatment center has voted to proceed with its expansion plan but will be consulting from now on with neighbors who oppose it.

Damascus House's board voted unanimously at its Tuesday meeting to move forward with its plan to expand. But it also supported mediation sessions with the community, a move board member Trisha Lightstein said will help soothe tensions.

"We feel as if we are making progress, and we hope to make more progress," she said.

Talk of progress and cooperation is a new development in the three-month drama involving the treatment center and its angry neighbors.

The problems began just before Christmas, when signs indicating that a zoning change had been requested appeared on an Edison Street property behind Damascus House, a 17-bed treatment center in the 4200 block of Ritchie Highway.

Though Damascus House officials had spoken publicly of a plan to expand, few neighbors knew about it, and the plan was different from the one originally presented.

When neighbors learned that Damascus House was planning to purchase the Edison Street property, renovate it and add 15 beds, they were furious. They also opposed a plan to build two transitional homes on the property. Many thought the center was trying to sneak plans through and had deliberately not warned neighbors of the changes.

Neighbors' only recourse was to attempt to derail the zoning change. Part of the Edison Street property is zoned commercial and part is zoned residential. Damascus House sought to change the zoning to entirely commercial to ease its expansion plans.

Neighbors' quest to quash the zoning change gained momentum when legislators wrote to the hearing officer, expressing opposition to the change.

Some residents said they did not oppose the treatment center expansion but couldn't bear the prospect of having more commercial buildings on busy Ritchie Highway if the center were to close.

In the past two weeks, the board has made overtures to the community. It abandoned the request for zoning change, agreed to consider alternative designs for the expansion and invited community members to a recent board meeting.

Rachel Wohl, executive director of the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, said her office was asked to help mend fences between Brooklyn Park residents and Damascus House. The cost of the mediation will be covered by grants, Wohl said, so it won't cost the association anything.

This week, Wohl gave Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association President Virginia Eidinger a list of mediators who would be available.

Eidinger has said that she is receptive to mediation and will introduce the idea to the community at its next meeting Monday. Lightstein of Damascus House will attend, and Ramona Buck, the commission's public policy director, will be there to answer questions about mediation.

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