By Claire Wolters
Editor’s note: On Thursday, August 31, after press time, Judge Spiros Angelos issued his ruling in support of Swarthmore Borough Council’s grant of a zoning exemption to permit siting of the HEADstrong Foundation’s “Nick’s House” at 200 N. Chester Road. The article below is as it appears in the Swarthmorean’s print edition of September 1.
On Thursday, August 24, lawyers for Swarthmore Borough, the HEADstrong Foundation, and borough residents presented oral arguments in the case of Anthony and Deborah Carunchio v. the Swarthmore Borough and HEADstrong Foundation, which concerns the legality of the borough’s grant of a zoning exemption which permitted the Foundation to move into a large home it has purchased at 200 S. Chester Road.
The statements were presented to Judge Spiros E. Angelos at the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas in Media, whose final decision will be rendered in the upcoming weeks. The ruling will determine whether HEADstrong’s “Nick’s House” is permitted or prohibited from opening in Swarthmore Borough.
HEADstrong provides temporary housing for caregivers and cancer patients who are receiving advanced treatment at nearby hospitals. It was founded by Nicholas Colleluori during his own battle with the disease, and has operated under the leadership of his parents, Cheryl Colleluori and Pat Colleluori, since Nick’s passing in 2006. The foundation’s first Nick’s House location in Folsom hosts two families at a time. The Swarthmore location, a short commute from Philadelphia hospitals, is large enough to house up to seven unrelated families in a homelike setting which HEADstrong says assists in patient recovery and family morale.
The opponents, who filed an appeal in January, are 16 neighbors of the property who have joined together. They cite zoning laws in the borough which prohibit more than three unrelated persons from living together in a dwelling zoned for single-family residences only. The neighbors argue that HEADstrong should not be exempt from this RB zoning. They have also expressed concerns about parking and safety issues, including a potential increase in traffic.
“No one in this courtroom, or possibly this country, can quarrel with the mission of HEADstrong,” said James Byrne, lawyer for the opposition. “But it’s in violation of zoning laws” for the residential property.
Borough Council had a different take on the situation, and granted the Foundation an exception to the RB zoning laws in December, under the borough’s Fair Housing ordinance. This ordinance (#1298) reflects federal law in making it unlawful to discriminate against handicapped persons, including those with conditions like cancer, by refusing “to make reasonable accomodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person[s] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”
Is an Exception Warranted?
Thursday’s hearing addressed the borough’s decision, and whether HEADstrong’s situation warranted the exception. In dispute were the definitions of equal opportunity, discrimination, and dwelling.
Byrne said that to prove discrimination, HEADstrong would need to demonstrate that borough residents without cancer could potentially reside in a multiple-family home. Because no seven unrelated families, with or without a handicap, are allowed to reside in a dwelling zoned RB, he argued that the accommodation was not an equal opportunity, but an unfair advantage. “[HEADstrong] tried to use this handicap as a sword, instead of a shield,” said Byrne, and he urged the judge to put aside emotions in order to examine “equal justice under law.”
Mathew McClure, lawyer for the HEADstrong Foundation, said the case was less about zoning than it was about the requirement of equal rights under federal law.
“Equal opportunity,” said McClure, “means equal results in the broadest sense of the word.” McClure said that to be denied this shared residence in the borough would effectively discriminate against cancer patients by refusing them a homelike community environment in a time of hardship. McClure said this denial would qualify as discriminatory effect, even if the intent had been to follow zoning procedures.
Robert Scott, lawyer for Swarthmore Borough, added that denying HEADstrong access to a residence in the specific zoning district would mean that no dwelling in the entire borough could be used to house this community of cancer patients, contravening the Fair Housing Ordinance. “The borough has an affirmative obligation to provide the accommodation,” Scott said.
Four of the appellant neighbors were in attendance, as well as a small group of HEADstrong supporters including Nick’s parents. Judge Angelos set no timetable for his decision, which will determine whether Nick’s House can begin to operate in its large, welcoming, and currently empty Swarthmore location.