After nearly a year’s delay through continuances, the public hearing began last Monday night about 8 p.m. An hour later, it was back on hold, continued until the Nether Providence Township’s Zoning Hearing Board next meets on October 17. Still, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Of course, many steps have led to this point, as attorneys prepared the cases for Nether Providence Township and for appellant Dung H. “Gabe” Lau, owner of the property at 224 N. Providence Road, where a “sober living” group residence has been in operation since at least 2015. The township cited Mr. Lau in September, 2015, under section 300-8 of its Code, noting that running a professional office and operating a drug treatment center in the house are not consistent with the R-2 zoning of the property for single-family occupancy.
In November 2015, a resident died in a third floor bathroom at 224, after injecting a fatal mixture of heroin and fentanyl. This brought to wider public attention the presence of a group home for recovering addicts in the midst of a neighborhood zoned residential, and Wallingford residents have since argued the issue of the sober living home’s continued operation. At Monday’s hearing, Media attorney Vincent Mancini questioned the witnesses on behalf of Bradley and Martha Lambertsen, neighbors of the 224 property.
Township solicitor Michael Maddren of Media called two witnesses on Monday night: Nether Providence police officer Patrick Fisher and township manager Gary Cummings. Officer Fisher testified regarding his response to a 911 call to the home in September, 2015, saying that he arrived to find paramedics attempting without success to revive Brian Fetterman. The officer noted the presence of a number of adult males, whom homeowner Lau said were his guests.
Gary Cummings reviewed the township’s history with the home and Mr. Lau, who purchased the 9-bedroom Victorian house in 2014 with the proposed use as a single-family home. In September 2014, Lau notified the township that he intended to rent the home. Then-township zoning officer Mary Hickman advised him that only a single family occupancy was allowed, and shortly afterward, Lau withdrew his rental use application.
When Cummings later met Lau at the home to deliver a code violation notice, Lau said that the house was being rented. During a later visit with other township representatives, Cummings said, Lau disclosed that the property was being used as a sober living home, with six “guests” in residence, and space for four more. According to the contract Lau shared with Cummings then, the guests at the 224 N. Providence Road house (identified as Providence Recovery House) agreed to pay in advance for weeks or months at the house and committed to treatment at 1223 N. Providence Road in Media. This is the address of Providence Living Treatment Center, a clinic apparently owned by Lau.
In cross-examination, Mr. Lau’s attorney, Wendy McLean, asked Cummings about other group homes in the township — how they are permitted and defined. Cummings said that while the zoning ordinance does not define “family” or “group home,” the other group homes in the township typically have 6 or fewer residents who live there for extended periods. The township may grant accommodations to permit these group residences in neighborhoods with single-family R-2 zoning, as a practice required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to thwart discrimination against persons with disabilities, a rubric which includes recovering addicts. When asked by solicitor Maddren whether active drug users would be considered protected by the ADA, Cummings responded, ”No.”
Maddren noted that “six or seven” zoning accommodation requests are now or have recently been heard in Delaware County, including the Fair Housing Board hearing in Swarthmore this month for 200 S. Chester Road.
Mr. Lau’s attorney, Wendy McLean, said the homeowner requested an accommodation for a sober living residence after issuance of the citation. She noted that extensive case law addresses issues concerning accommodations of zoning standards to permit group living uses. In cases like this where federal law (such as the ADA and the Fair Housing Act) may be invoked, appeal of a local zoning ruling can be made direct to federal court.
Zoning Hearing Board chairman Jeffrey Sobel said, “We all recognize the frustration” that township residents may have with the lengthy hearing process. Board member Christian Davis assured the crowd that public comment will be heard at a future hearing. The next installment is scheduled for Monday night, October 17, 7:30 p.m., at the Nether Providence Township building, 214 Sykes Lane in Wallingford. The sober living facility continues to operate.