East Norriton OK’s MontCo domestic violence shelter after heated debate

     Members of the East Norriton Township zoning board voted to allow a women's shelter to occupy the St. Titus Parish rectory. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Members of the East Norriton Township zoning board voted to allow a women's shelter to occupy the St. Titus Parish rectory. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    After months of contentious hearings, a zoning board in East Norriton has approved Laurel House, Montgomery County’s only domestic violence shelter, to relocate to the township.

    “I believe this decision really falls under the category of what’s popular isn’t always right sometimes, and vice versa,” said zoning board member Vincent Gillen, in response to some neighbors’ vocal protests of the move.

    He continued, “I think it would send the wrong message for me tonight to say that I support the victims of domestic violence, as long as it’s not in East Norriton Township.”

    The three person board voted to allow the shelter to occupy the St. Titus Parish rectory by-right, meaning the use was already allowed by zoning law and would not require a variance.

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    The approval did come with 15 conditions, detailed by board member John DiPietro. They include:

    A maximum of 35 shelter occupants at a given time, plus staff
    24-hour staffing, including a minimum of two overnight staff
    9 p.m. curfew for shelter residents and their children
    6 ft. high zoning compliant fence in front, rear and side setback yards
    No freestanding signage visible from the road, just a small identifying placard on the building itself
    Exterior security cameras

    The vote ended a series of public hearings and an attempt by 12 residents to hash out their concerns with the Laurel House plan.  Despite hiring a lawyer, no settlement was reached.  Other residents testified against any sort of agreement that would allow the project to move forward.

    Laurel House is Montgomery County’s only shelter specifically for women and children fleeing domestic abuse. In a letter posted on their website, executive director Beth Sturman shared their reasons for moving from it’s current rowhome in Norristown.

    “Time and tight budgets have taken a toll on our facilities, while the need for shelter and other services has increased,” she said.  The Norristown building currently housing Laurel House’s offices and shelter is too small and in need of repairs, according to Sturman. St. Titus on Keenwood Road was in the process of subdividing its parcel and would sell Laurel House 2.9 acres, including the former rectory.

    The rest of the church will remain operational.

    Of the 50 people packed into the East Norriton Twp. building for the vote, not all were in favor. Norman Venezia, an East Norriton resident, said he still has questions and concerns.

    “It’s going to raise taxes,” he said. “It’s going to require extra police protection.”

    At an earlier hearing, representatives from Laurel House testified that in their 35 year history, there was only one instance of an abuser trying to visit the shelter.

    Senior director of Laurel House Tina Quincy said the next step is to reconvene with their attorney but that building plans will not advance until 2016.

    Each year, Laurel House helps aobut 200 women fleeing domestic violence. The planned shelter at St. Titus will allow it to increase capacity by 30 percent.

    Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the East Norriton solicitor as a member of the zoning board.

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