NIMBY in Pennsauken: Residents fight group home for troubled teens
Anxiety in the Pennsauken neighborhood started with the purchase of a house that had been vacant for years. Area residents took to the Internet and found that the new owner, Landmark Property Management, was connected to a local social services provider.
Anxiety in the Pennsauken neighborhood started with the purchase of a house that had been vacant for years.
Area residents took to the Internet and found that the new owner, Landmark Property Management, was connected to a local social services provider.
Soon, township officials were fielding complaints - and hosting public meetings to discuss their options.
The residents were furious: Was a group home for troubled teenagers really opening in their neighborhood of Colonial revival homes and wraparound porches and towering oaks?
"I'm a clinician, I deal with the substance abuse issues, I understand the need, but my question is: Is this the best place for them?" said David Alfe, a resident of the Collins Tract neighborhood. "Maybe a less densely populated part of the town would make more sense."
Tensions have been high in Pennsauken since it came to light in October that a mental health and counseling organization was opening a home for teenage victims of abuse or neglect. Neighbors are raising questions about everything from personal safety to property values and zoning violations.
At the center of the controversy is Harry Marmorstein, chief executive officer of Drenk Behavioral Health Center, a nonprofit.
Drenk has five similar homes in other parts of the state, and Marmorstein has gotten used to taking questions from outraged neighbors.
This month, he took part in a forum at a Pennsauken elementary school, where he told more than 50 residents that there would be staff members to supervise the teens, most of whom would be victims of parental failings, not criminals. The teens would live in the house for a limited term before returing home or to pemanent placement. They would attend school while in Pennsauken.
"I doubt it did much good," Marmorstein said of the forum.
Such scenarios are common in New Jersey, as the state Division of Youth and Family Services works to expand the number of group children's homes in the state, said Roy Leitstein, a board member of the New Jersey Association of Children, Youth and Families, an advocacy group.
The initiative is part of a systemic overhaul of DYFS prompted by a 1999 lawsuit filed by Children's Rights, a New York-based advocacy group, charging the state was deficient in caring for juvenile victims of abuse and neglect.
"The attitude was, we want to hide those people, we don't want them in the middle of a residential community. Then the state switched over and said, we want people in the community and not on the outside or the fringe," Leitstein said. "Some communities are open to it, some are more volatile."
Raising suspicion in Pennsauken, neighbors and officials say, is the fact that Drenk came into the neighborhood without communicating with anyone in the township.
The property on Cove Road was purchased through another nonprofit, Landmark Property Management - of which Marmorstein is a board member - and leased to Drenk.
As the home would house no more than five individuals at one time, it is not required to go before local authorities for approval.
"They came in very clandestinely," said Mayor Rick Taylor. "There's a lot of anxiety out there because the people just don't believe what they're hearing."
The harsh reaction from neighbors comes as the Collins Tract, and Pennsauken as a whole, was hit hard in the depressed real estate market. Some houses sit vacant with weathered "for sale" signs out front. Neighbors wonder whether more group homes like Drenk's are on the way.
The house Landmark bought for $150,000 in January fetched $350,000 in 2006, according to county tax records.
"The reason it's going where it is is economics," said Alfe, who bought his home as a fixer-upper in 2003.
Last week, Pennsauken gave Drenk the OK to move into the house. The state has to approve it before teenagers and staff can move in.
Renovations on the yellow stucco home were completed in August, but for months township building inspectors held off on approving the house for occupancy, Marmorstein said.
"They come. They find something else wrong. They come back, find something else wrong," he said last week. "I can say one thing. When we finally get in, it will be the safest house in Pennsauken."