COAL TOWNSHIP - A zoning amendment approved by Coal Township commissioners Thursday will allow a group home for pregnant women to be established in the township's west end - and perhaps others in any other end, for that matter - despite opposition from several residents.

The amendment adds to the definition of a group home, allowing for homes for pregnant women or new mothers along with the already established allowances of homes for the elderly and mentally and physically handicapped.

The group homes are eligible to be established in all residential neighborhoods zoned R-2, which solicitor Vince Rovito estimates makes up 90 percent of Coal Township.

The ordinance still prohibits treatment centers for substance abuse and for the treatment of anyone considered a threat to the physical safety of others.

Residents opposed to the home in the 1600 block of West Lynn Street were concerned with how such a home would change the atmosphere of the quiet, residential neighborhood.

Pete Long, of 1636 W. Lynn St., spoke of a petition that had more than 100 signatures opposed to such a home. Many of those who signed were unaware such a home was even being given consideration, he said.

"If there are people in our neighborhood who wanted this, they would be here to support it. Everyone that's here doesn't want it," he said. "As taxpayers, I would hope that we have some say in what goes on in our neighborhood."

Central Susquehanna Opportunities Inc. and Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit have jointly applied for a federal grant to fund operations of the home, which has already been purchased by CSO and is under renovation. That grant application is still pending.

Pinnacle Place is intended to house up to four pregnant women between 18 and 22 years of age, along with their newborns, for a limited period of time in an environment described by administrators as strictly monitored. Counseling services in parenthood and career training would be provided on site.

There would be four full-time employees on site, including a "house mother" who would live in the home, and five part-time employees.

Conflicts

The vote, which passed 3-0 with two abstentions, was complicated by existing conflicts among three township commissioners - conflicts that did not go unnoticed by the residents opposed to the move.

Gene Welsh and Jerry Waugh abstained as both are members of the board of directors for the nonprofit group which will operate the group home, CSO.

The nonprofit happens to employ the daughter of Craig Fetterman, board chairman. Fetterman acknowledged his daughter's employment with CSO, which began in November 2011, in a letter read aloud by Township Manager Rob Slaby at the meeting's outset.

His daughter is grown and no longer lives in his home. Her employment, he said, began months before the issue with the group home came to surface. He added that his family should not be punished for being functioning members of society.

"The function of my daughter within the CSO is neither enhanced nor jeopardized by the vote I make this evening," his letter stated. "I will be voting on the CSO issue."

That a conflict was acknowledged allows Fetterman to cast a vote, according to Rovito.

"The law specifically allows a disclosure to be made and a vote to be had," he said of law governing ethical standards and financial disclosure.

Long asked George Zalar to explain his relationship with Gale Zalar, CSO's community action director. George Zalar replied that their relationship is through marriage and that is not a conflict according to law.

In opposition

Approximately 10 residents attended the meeting in opposition, expressing their desire to uphold the zoning ordinance rather than amend it, and prevent the home from being opened in the 1600 block of West Lynn Street.

A petition with 120 signatures was presented, 66 of whom live in the area of the home, according to George Zalar, township commissioner.

Residents spoke of concerns that such a home would attract a clientele that could engage in criminal behavior. Since the home is staffed around the clock and is to be inhabited by four mothers, either new or expectant, there were also concerns over parking.

Altogether, the combination of all concerns appeared to lead to a concern of potential negative impact on property values and, deeper than that, how such a home would change a quiet, residential neighborhood.

Township commissioners acknowledged the immediate area of the home is a great neighborhood with well-kept houses. The residents agreed, of course, arguing that such an environment shouldn't be tampered with.

"What you are doing is a good thing," Rick Marcinek, of 1610 W. Arch St., told administrators of the nonprofit groups, "but we really, really, really don't want it in our neighborhood."

"That house is not a suitable place for a pregnancy center," said Steve Minker, of 1630 W. Lynn St.

No problems

William Carpenter, township police chief, said he spoke to police departments in Reading, Bucks County, and Sauderton, Montgomery County.

There are two similar homes for pregnant women in both municipalities that are larger than that planned in Coal Township, he said. In the combined 33 years the two homes have been opened, the police departments reported not a single complaint was filed associated with either home.

Carpenter said what he learned from the police didn't jive with the fears of crime expressed by some residents, saying the generalizations aren't based of fact.

"I don't think it's fair to place fear into people," he said.

While acknowledging Carpenter's research, Long criticized the commissioners for not visiting a group home firsthand to see what it's like.

Kim Eroh, of CSIU, who helped write the pending grant application, stressed that the home would be monitored around the clock and would include counseling services for motherhood and job training.

The potential tenants are already clients of CSO, some of whom who have been kicked out of their home because of their pregnancies and have nowhere else to turn.

They must abide by strict rules and regulations to not only gain admittance but to stay in the home, she said, adding that the tenants would be working or going to school to be able to support themselves and their children.

As for concerns of significant others, she said in many cases the fathers are out of the picture. If they are in the picture, they'll have to abide by certain rules, too.

"You don't have to worry about any dad giving anybody any problems," she said, an assertion respectfully dismissed by the concerned residents.