Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Over 300 Attend Boisterous Conestoga Meeting

CONESTOGA, PA - Emotions and passions overflowed Monday evening in Conestoga when over 300 residents packed the community firehouse to discuss safety concerns over a property that is the residence of four convicted felons, three of which are registered sexual offenders on Pennsylvania's Megan’s List. (See photos.)

The May 19th meeting was organized by local residents, and was not conducted by any official government entity. For the past week, the sleepy community located 7 miles southwest of Lancaster has been engulfed in controversy over their newest residents.

"There's sex offenders in there," one woman said, but declined to give her name as she stood in the 3100 block of Main Street in Conestoga pointing toward the property. Her claim about the residents is easily verified by checking the Pennsylvania State Police Megan’s Website. Flyers had been distributed this past week throughout the quiet bedroom area inviting residents to "Please come and voice your concerns to your town!"

And they did just that. A long procession of cars jammed Main Street as residents arrived for the 6 pm meeting. At one point, the line of vehicles was estimated to be over one-half mile in length. Seating was provided for 260, but it soon became standing room only in the Conestoga Fire Company's oversized equipment bay. The rear doors were opened in the firehouse to accommodate the swelling crowd.

"Please keep your emotions in check," the crowd was repeatedly asked as the meeting commenced a few minutes late. It lasted just over two hours. Nothing was resolved at the meeting, which at times was unruly when several residents became argumentative and boisterous. Three times during the evening, the oversized crowd was warned that the meeting would close early because of the rowdy conduct.

"We're concerned about the fear and anxiety of the citizens," Cpl. John Michener of the Southern Regional Police Department said to the assembled crowd of residents. "Understand that the courts have decided to put these people back into society."

"We understand your concerns," Craig Stedman, Lancaster County District Attorney, told the Conestoga residents. "We support Conestoga anyway we legally can."

Stedman informed those at the meeting there is no law in Pennsylvania that restricts where offenders can live after they have served a prison sentence.

Tom Armstrong, a former state representative who setup the halfway house on Conestoga's Main Street, was often jeered and interrupted as he spoke to the crowd. Armstrong said the men in the halfway house were "highly screened" by him.

Providing statistics about incarceration and rehabilitating convicted offenders did not quell the crowd. Many residents seemed to express a "not in our neighborhood" attitude. Several openly said, "get them out of here." Many were also agitated when they heard Armstrong say that up to 30 residents could eventually live in Conestoga.

Those in attendance were disappointed to learn that at this point, nothing can be done to stop the transitional housing use of the property. Jim Thomas, the Township's solicitor, told those at the meeting that on Friday, May 16, Conestoga Township's Zoning Officer Jim Hindes issued a noncompliance notice to the property owner, Ben Vonderheide. The property owner now has 30 days to respond to the noncompliance notice. When that happens, a hearing will be scheduled by the township's zoning board.
Thomas also said that he has directed the township supervisors and Hindes not to answer any questions about the current transitional house.

The residents were urged to attend the zoning hearing (when it is scheduled) and express their concerns at that time.

One of the offenders living in the property attended the meeting, and asked to speak to the crowd. Richard Owens passionately spoke to the residents, telling them "I respect the concerns of the people."

He said that so far he has been treated with respect, dignity, and graciousness by the townspeople. He told his story about his offense, which occurred 27 years ago. While in prison, he earned college degrees, and has become immersed in scripture and keeps asking himself "how can I change?" He pleaded with the community to "judge the man and not the label."

"I can't change what happened," Owens explained. He said that he had to stay in the county prison for one extra year because he had "no where to live." He served the maximum sentence and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of Armstrong's faith-based housing opportunity.

While many in the crowd seemed moved with Owens's story and work toward redemption, it was not long before they returned to their boisterous conduct, making often longwinded and meandering statements of why they believe transitional housing should not be in Conestoga. Despite repeated requests to ask questions about safety from the community organizers conducting the meeting, the majority of those that spoke up were obviously against having anyone on Megan's list living in a residence in their community.

When the meeting closed, many mingled and continued discussing the issue. Several vowed that the fight is not over, and are planning to attend the next Supervisor's meeting in June.