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Town pans zoning change for counseling program

By David Hulse
February 19, 2014

ELDRED, NY — A public hearing brought out a room filled with skeptical residents, and the Highland Town Board subsequently unanimously rejected a proposed zoning amendment that would have allowed a New Jersey-based counseling group to operate at the former Sokol Camp, located on a 25-acre site zoned R-2 along Mail Road.

Co-owner Anthony Cupo came to represent the Stepping Forward Counseling Center of Chatham, NJ, a for-profit business that works with children eight to 12 years of age. The program treats anxiety, depression, addictions, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, Aspergers, bipolar, and other emotional and mental disorders.

Residents’ concerns included neighbors’ safety against the possibility of violent clients, appropriateness of the existing buildings for a treatment facility and the basic idea of opening the residential zone to other programs.

Cupo said his clients are high-functioning autistic children, who are “probably” not dangerous. Their problems are that they have no social skills and cannot work or make friends, he said.

Resident Ruth Ellen LaRuffa teaches at the Center for Discovery, and said she could not understand how the old buildings at the former camp could qualify under state rules for residential facilities.

Cupo said the buildings’ shells would be retained but the interiors would be entirely gutted and renewed.

A Timber Lakes resident said he wasn’t against the Stepping Forward facility, but with the zoning change. He worried that a future applicant could be an alcohol and drug treatment facility.

Supervisor Andrew Boyar agreed that the zoning change would open the door to other kinds of treatment programs.

Peter Carmeci worried about new strains the facility could put on part-time police and volunteer emergency services.

Alice Foster was opposed. She said the zone includes three-quarters of the town and most people bought homes there because it’s residential.

Program sponsors spoke of a maximum population of about 50 clients and staff, but the proposed ordinance change increased the allowable population to 150 persons.

“If we allow a facility of 150 persons, it will change the nature of the town, of the quality of life,” LaRuffa said.

The board also received several letters from residents suggesting changes to the ordinance language or the proposed approval process for programs like Stepping Forward.