EXETER TWP. — As new details emerged Monday about a proposed residential treatment center in Harding — and its developer’s possible strategy for getting the plan approved — nearly 80 concerned neighbors crowded a public meeting to vent frustrations and concerns.
At issue is Dr. Robert Dompkosky’s proposal for a “a short-term inpatient counseling facility” at the former Sarah J. Dymond elementary school on Sutton Creek Road.
Emmit Coolbaugh, who lives directly in front of the former school, was among those who spoke out at Monday night’s Exeter Township Board of Supervisors meeting.
“How am I going to let my grandchildren play back there (if this goes in)?” Coolbaugh asked, noting the building is no more than 25 yards away from his backyard.
“I’m not. I’m going to have to sell my house,” he added.
“And who’s going to buy it then?” another member of the audience shouted out.
Monday’s outpouring of emotion came despite the fact the supervisors have nothing to do with the issue — which is now before the township’s Zoning Hearing Board — and exactly what would take place in the center is still unknown.
Dompkosky, a doctor from Mountain Top, is also in the midst of plans to establish a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Wilkes-Barre. Repeated attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
Supervisor Chairman Robert Kile urged the crowd to get organized, return in even greater numbers and “make a very strong case” to the Zoning Hearing Board when it takes up the matter in public session June 25.
Ed Gashi was among more than a dozen of residents who took turns at the podium offering versions of the same argument.
“I’m speaking from emotion, versus fact,” Gashi admitted to the board at the outset of his comments opposing the treatment center plans. Toward the end of his remarks, he offered concern for those who need rehabilitation, as well.
“I feel for these people. We all probably have one vice or another … I can’t even imagine what they are going through,” Gashi added.
Still, he said, the country neighborhood with its limited police force and all-volunteer fire and ambulance services is a bad fit.
Zoning Board solicitor Thomas J. Killino said he expects Dompkosky to present a thorough review of his plans for the former school during that hearing, in contrast to the vague description he gave on his original application filed Jan. 23.
“Our mission,” the application reads, “is to provide a comprehensive approach in achieving an individual’s physical, mental and spiritual well-being utilizing highly trained counselors and nursing staff for successful integration back into the community.”
Township zoning officer Carl Alber denied the application Feb. 7 on the grounds that current township laws would not allow it. One week later, Dompkosky filed for a special exception, appealing to the Zoning Board to overturn Alber’s decision. That appeal claims an inpatient counseling center is in fact a permitted use because the township’s zoning laws don’t specifically forbid it.
The section of the code Alber cited in denying Dompkosky’s request refers to “supportive, homelike, community-based living arrangement for adults who cannot live independently in the community,” and says they are only permitted under certain conditions. Those include a care home’s operator be approved by the Area Agency on Aging and the number of residents be limited to three.
Killino, hired in March to serve as the Zoning Board’s solicitor, said Monday he’s unsure exactly what grounds Dompkosky and his attorney, Bruce Phillips of Wilkes-Barre, will argue their appeal on at the June 25 hearing. He agreed Dompkosky’s statement suggests he thinks his proposal must be approved because the law doesn’t specifically ban short-term residential counseling centers.
“That seems to be his interpretation, but that doesn’t make it so,” Killino said.
Phillips did not return calls seeking comment as of press time Monday.
On his application to Exeter Township, Dompkosky estimates the completed cost of the inpatient facility as proposed will be $800,000. Dompkosky bought the former elementary school and the 7.7 acres of land it sits on for $105,000 from the Wyoming Area School District earlier this year.
Former School Board member Carl Yorina, who lives in Wyoming, also spoke Monday. He told the crowd the way he remembers it, the school board was told Dompkosky was going to open a physical rehabilitation center, not a drug and alcohol treatment center.
“I’m here to ask for the community’s forgiveness for not doing my due diligence,” said Yorina, who resigned his post in March. “If I had known it was going to be a drug rehabilitation, I’d have brought that out to the public (when we approved the sale).”
The property was auctioned off in accordance with state regulations, according to Wyoming Area School District Solicitor Jarrett Ferentino. Dompkosky’s bid was accepted by the Wyoming Area School Board at a public meeting on Dec. 12 and the sale was completed May 4, Ferentino said. A check of the Luzerne County tax records Monday showed both the district and Dompkosky as owners.
Yorina also recalled the former school being assessed at $350,000 and said he was the only vote against the sale at $105,000.
Dompkosky is one of five physicians in Luzerne County who received approval in November from the Pennsylvania Department of Health to certify patients for its new medical marijuana program. As the head of Addiction Alliance LLC, he is currently working to open a residential drug and alcohol treatment center on North River Street in Wilkes-Barre. City zoning officials in March approved the group’s plans to convert the upper floor of a warehouse into a 14-bed, residential treatment center over the objections of residents there.
At the last public hearing on that proposal, the doctor admitted he has never run a treatment center, but said he is involved in the care of patients needing addiction therapy.
In Exeter Township, Killino said official notices of the request to change the zoning on the former school property were sent out within the last week to the immediate neighbors and legal advertisements announcing the June 25 hearing were placed in the newspapers of record in late May.