Bethlehem ZBA postpones motion on proposed sanitorium


August 04, 2011
BETHLEHEM The Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) agreed Thursday evening that the sanitorium proposed for 2444-2442 Main St. met the five criteria to grant a special exception, but postponed making a motion so they could work on conditions for the new use.

Both proponents and opponents weighed in during a public hearing on the therapeutic program for young women, which would be called Sovereign Journey. A few abutters expressed their fears concerning the clientele that the program might bring to the town one shared her past experience of a series of home invasions by a person with mental health issues while others felt that some people were getting caught up by the connotations of "sanatorium."

Sandy Laleme, who is on the Board of Selectmen, was one of the latter.

"Deny it [the application] based on zoning rules, not on fear of mental health," said Laleme.

An application was first submitted to the Planning Board, but at a public hearing in mid-July, the board announced it had overlooked a zoning rule and couldn't rule on it before the ZBA approved a special exception. The building is outside District 1 Main Street, which allows for hospitals, convalescent homes and institutions of philanthropic use in addition to sanatoriums.

Karen Fitzhugh is looking to buy the property from Donna and Kevin Killeen through Andrew Smith of Peabody and Smith Reality to start a privately funded three-phase "therapeutic residential program" for women who are having a difficult time grasping life skills.

Much of the information reviewed before the ZBA was also provided during an informational session held for residents after the Planning Board officially closed their meeting.

All of the women will be high school graduates many of them also having been accepted into colleges and with a tuition of more than $8,000 per month, the program would mostly serve women who come from well-to-do families.

"They [Sovereign Journey] can cherry pick who they want," said Donna Killeen, who attended the ZBA meeting.

The women, ages 18 to 24, lack the confidence and/or skills to thrive in college and may suffer from anxiety or depression. They come from high-income families that have high expectations. Fitzhugh stressed again on Thursday that the women will have joined the program of their own free will.

Karen Neuringer, an abutter to the Killeen's property, doesn't want that property to be used for the program and said during the meeting that she felt she was being pushed out.

She questioned the board's interpretation of the five criteria the application needed to meet in order for them to approve it. At the end of Thursday night's four-hour meeting, the board had decided that the application did meet all of the tests.

The five criteria are whether the specific site/proposed use:

- Is appropriate in "relation to surrounding properties."

- Is compatibility with "adjoining land uses and with the character of the neighborhood."

- Won't generate substantial noise, odor or increase in traffic.

- Won't create "any other nuisance or hazard."

- "Will be in harmony with surrounding properties and consistent with the spirit and intent of this ordinance."

"Three of the statements out of the five refer to the nearby properties 75 percent of the abutters are opposed to this [Sovereign Journey]," said Neuringer over the phone on Friday. "I don't understand how the zoning board could have accepted the application if three out of the five questions were not met."

The other abutters are Janice Bruso, Jay Melick, and Erin and Ken Woo, in addition to Connecticut River Bank and Bank of America, according to town documents. The Woos sent a letter to the town on July 26 saying, "As abutters directly across the street, we wish to inform you that we do not oppose the proposed change in use."

As of Monday, Bruso and Melick had not sent letters or emails stating their opposition to or support for the proposed program, and they could not be reached for comment on Monday.

If the ZBA approves the special exception a new application can be submitted to the Planning Board.

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