Montgomery County's women's shelter is looking for a new home.
Its offices and shelter are blocks apart in two 100-year-old homes in Norristown. Its narrow staircases are difficult to navigate, especially for children and women recovering from domestic violence injuries, said Laurel House executive director Beth Sturman.
So the organization hopes to purchase and move into the St. Titus Church rectory in neighboring East Norriton Township.
But it's confronting a new problem: Residents say the shelter is not welcome in their neighborhood.
After months of crowded hearings and legal negotiations, the township's zoning board is expected to vote Wednesday on a zoning change that would allow the shelter to move into the church property.
"It's always been a quiet neighborhood," said Mike Gallagher, who lives across the street from the church on Keenwood Road.
Gallagher, part of a group that has hired an attorney to fight the shelter's move, said he fears its presence would attract abusers looking for their victims, bring more traffic and noise, and ultimately lower home values.
But Sturman said Laurel House has housed women and children from across Montgomery County since 1980, and has never had an abuser show up on its doorstep. Staff is on site around the clock, she said, and the East Norriton property would have security cameras and a six-foot fence.
"From doing this kind of work I know that the safety measures and the kind of dynamics, that it's really not an unsafe service to offer in the community," she said.
Laurel House would use the rectory and also build a new building on the property, Sturman said. The shelter would have 12 bedrooms, for as many as 35 women and children to stay for up to 45 days.
The residential neighborhood off Germantown Pike has mostly brick homes with large yards. St. Titus is seeking to sell three of its 13 acres to Laurel House.
For the last few months, bright-yellow yard signs in front of many homes have served as a constant reminder of the controversy. "No Laurel House at St. Titus," they read.
"The concern is once they're here, if there's a problem, you're not going to get them to leave," said Bob Wagner, standing outside his home Tuesday on a cul-de-sac near the church.
Sturman said the opposition has been disappointing - in part because it has publicized the potential location of the shelter. Laurel House does not disclose the address of its house in Norristown, to protect the women and children who stay there.
But with security measures in place, she said, even a publicly known location should not create problems for neighbors.
"I hope that over time we can demonstrate that we can be good, safe neighbors," Sturman said.
As the zoning board prepares to vote, residents said they hope the shelter decides to locate elsewhere. Joseph Kuhls, an attorney for a group of neighbors, said he has argued that the change would not comply with the local zoning ordinance.
The zoning board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the East Norriton Township offices.