East Norriton residents weigh in on fight over Montco women’s shelter

     With the plan in the background, one East Norriton defends a proposed plan for a women's shelter on Keenwood Road. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    With the plan in the background, one East Norriton defends a proposed plan for a women's shelter on Keenwood Road. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    The only domestic violence shelter in Montgomery County is locked in a zoning battle with residents in East Norriton.

    Tuesday night, residents both for and against the proposed move of Laurel House to the property of St. Titus Parish on Keenwood Road had a chance to make their arguments and share concerns.

    Twelve residents from Keenwood Road hired lawyer Joseph Kuhl out of Fort Washington to represent their interests and to seek a continuance, or an extension. The zoning board approved the continuance, and gave counsel for the residents and Laurel House until September 15 to determine whether or not they could reach a compromise.

    However, not every resident put compromise on the table. Solicitor for the zoning board Peter Amuso said the conflict around Laurel House is the most heated he has seen.

    Richard Vennera, who lives adjacent to the property, said he is “adamantly opposed” to the location and the possibility of compromise.

    “My biggest concern is the ‘so-called luggage’ that this will bring along with it … Yes, we may be helping out victims, but these victims may be bringing along criminals with them.” 

    Other residents made a plea for their home values, which they fear may decline.

    “Can anyone imagine the hopelessness that an elderly homeowner might feel upon learning that many people dismiss the equity value result of years of investment … as just some abstract excuse for NIMBYs to discriminate?” said Ken Christovich.

    Supporters of Laurel House continued to petition the board to approve the zoning variance. St. Titus is zoned to accept temporary housing for youth and the elderly, but not for people in the middle of their lives.

    Betty Pettine, who lives in Plymouth Township, said Laurel House saved her mother’s life.

    “They educated an 82-year-old woman and gave her the confidence to leave and know that she did not have to take that abuse any more,” said Pettine. “She was not going to bring trouble to your neighborhood. She was already in it.”

    Other supporters appealed to the Catholic values as a virtue for hosting at St. Titus, as well as the church’s financial need to subdivide and sell off a parcel of its land.

    “Selling off this part of our property will help us tremendously, even putting us in the black, praise be to God,” said St. Titus parishioner Victoria Taylor-Naoe.

    Concerns about publicizing the proposed location of the women’s shelter were also aired.

    Representatives for Laurel House said that in the internet age, it’s harder to keep locations a secret and that some shelters find it helpful to broadcast their location. As for safety concerns, Laurel House entered as evidence that it has only had one incident in the past of an abuser trying visit their shelter.

    Advocates also had an answer to persistent questions about home values and optics. A 2008 study by Philadelphia’s Project H.O.M.E. found that urban neighborhoods where their shelters are located experienced faster growth in home values than the city’s average, by 1.8 percent.

    Next month, counsel for Laurel House and Keenwood Road residents will share if they have reached a compromise and the zoning board will resume hearing testimony. Even if the zoning board approves Laurel House’s variance, it will still have to approve specific changes to their proposed 2.9 acre parcel out of the 13.3 acre church.

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