County municipality turns down center for battered women

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    SUSSEX COUNTY-An organization wanting to convert a current Main Street law office into an abused women and children's "transitional"/rehabilitation center was turned down by the zoning board of adjustment last week. By a 6-1 vote, the board denied a use variance to Newton-based Domestic Abuse Services, Inc.(DASI), which had argued that "transitional" centers—where abused victims go for further recuperation and job training after leaving emergency shelters—are vital to the county's efforts to help those in need, many of whom would otherwise have no place to turn after leaving shelters. "Our clients really are your neighbors," stated Jamie Bernard-Wetmore, DASI's executive director. "Victims of domestic violence cross every economic line, education line and racial line. And 30 percent of the Sussex County residents in our shelter are Franklin residents, or were in the past year." Zoning board members, however, argued that Franklin's efforts torevitalize the Main Street corridor would not be best served by allowing DASI to use its proposed site, a large, century-old building at 35 Main St. that had once served as the main business offices for the defunct New Jersey Zinc Company. Owned by Donald Kovach and William Fitzgibbons, the powder blue building has been used primarily as a law office in recent years, with three apartments in the upper floors. It is presently up for sale. "I believe that DASI does a lot of good in the community, but the site itself is not the intent of what the master plan and the zoning ordinance want," explained board member Mark Zschack. "And I feel it would be a negative impact on the revitalization of Main Street." The meeting, marked by impassioned pleas from both sides, lasted over four hours and finally concluded with the decision to reject DASI's proposed use variance. Liz Bonis cast the lone favorable tally, but declined comment afterward. DASI representatives, including planner Eileen Banyra, insisted that the building would be fully renovated and its historic value would be preserved, "albeit not commercial." "This is a historic building," Banyra said to the seven-member board. "Whoever comes could take the building down. (But) we're maintaining that value. Everything's happening inside, and we're also restoring, which is also the goal of the (new) master plan. The state has said this is important to your community from the mining era. "We've indicated to you that we're willing to put in any stipulations the attorneys can agree upon," Banyra added. "And we're willing to put in a deed restriction. There's three apartments there right now. We're asking for five additional apartments." Nearby residents, however, worried what might happen if estranged husbands of the victims decided to visit or confront the latter in their temporary home of anywhere from six to 18 months. "I don't think a keypad is any form of security," argued one person living close to the building. "Frankly, I don't want to be two doors down from there if one of these men comes after these women, armed or unarmed." "Gutting a building and wrapping it in plastic is not preserving a building," contended Evans Street resident Sean Kidd. "They don't know how they're going to treat people who break rules. I don't think this fits." Betty Allen, the Franklin Historical Society president, told the board that the late Franklin Hospital, torn down by St. Clare's Health Systems three months ago, would have been "more suitable" for DASI rather than its proposed Main Street location. Andover resident Deborah Meltz, closely affiliated with DASI, tried to address the fear factor that some in the capacity crowd were expressing. "We have enormous skill and experience in screening," argued Meltz, who echoed Wetmore's promise that "strict rules" would be imposed on transitional shelter residents. "Sometimes you have to be tough to be kind. We have amazing people. We can't control who is next door to us; we can control who is in this building. We're good neighbors. We're good people. Give us a chance to do something really special." "A lot of the detriments that you've heard about is fear," concluded DASI attorney William E. Hinkes, who hinted that a possible appeal could be filed in the event of a negative vote. "I think we've addressed that. I'll ask that you vote in favor of this." Neither Hinkes or Wetmore were available for later comment about a possible appeal, which did not seem to upset the board.. "I feel it's a wonderful organization," commented zoning board chairman Paul Crowley. "They do tremendous work and I hope they find a home. However, the (new) master plan and the ordinances specifically prohibit apartments in this area in order to revitalize the commercial aspects of Main Street."