Norristown State Hospital Forensic Unit Plans Under Review

PUBLISHED:May 6, 2024 at 6:44 a.m. | UPDATED:May 6, 2024 at 6:44 a.m.


WEST NORRITON — Talks on a proposed state institution overlay district on the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital are expected to continue at an upcoming West Norriton Township Board of Commissioners meeting next week.

The zoning change would allow several “permitted uses” on the state-owned property situated in West Norriton Township. Renovating an existing forensic unit is top of the list.

“I think the overlay is very minimal in the grand scheme of things when it comes to a zoning overlay, but it at least puts the township in the driver’s seat when it comes to control and having a say in the process. We’re at least protecting our voice in that process,” said West Norriton Township Manager Jason Bobst in an interview with MediaNews Group.

If approved, the proposed state institution overlay district would be considered an “overlay to the underlying rural residence district,” Bobst said in a previous presentation. The boundaries would be situated with the Norristown Farm Park to the north and west, and the Municipality of Norristown to the east.

The current state-run psychiatric facility has a 100-bed occupancy, Bobst said. Demolition plans are expected, with officials citing aging infrastructure and a 2017 settlement agreement with the ACLU that required the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to provide more beds and mental health resources to the facility.


Bobst said state officials approached the township with a “sketch” for the Southeastern PA Psychiatric Treatment Center about 18 months ago. While the Norristown State Hospital Regional Forensic Psychiatric Center remains active, Bobst said plans for the new 420-bed facility would require a phased approach.

The forensic unit would stay open while the first phase is constructed. Patients would be transferred to the new facility. Demolition would then take place, Bobst said, and construction would start on the second phase.

Any action the board would take would require a 30-day advertisement as well as further notification and a public hearing. He projected a motion to advertise the ordinance could take place in May, with a hearing and vote to adopt in June.

“We will actually have a say on design, operation and things like that prior to construction. So the state’s actually being a good neighbor in this process by being willing to … work with the neighbors, solicit public input,” Bobst said. “It’s going to go through the Planning Commission process just like everything else so that neighbors will have a say. Everything is going to be very transparent in how this process will work.”

Aside from planned demolition of some aging buildings on the property, it could be a while before construction starts as approvals for items such as preliminary land development and other zoning considerations are needed. Bobst anticipated that there wouldn’t be a “shovel in the ground on this probably until early 2025.”

While the main focus is the 420-bed forensic unit, other proposed “permitted uses” under the institutional overlay cover hospitals, mental health treatment facilities, practitioners offices, offices for county, state, police, and other nonprofit entities, and a homeless shelter or short-term transitional residential space.

West Norriton has been mentioned in reports of the county homelessness task force. A report revealed plans to partner with Lansdale, as well as Lower Merion, Upper Moreland and West Norriton townships to further efforts to assist the homeless.

In West Norriton Township, recommendations for a 30-to-35-bed shelter potentially within the township’s section of Norristown State Hospital land were suggested, aiming to help “those living in encampments,” according to county documents.

The Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center had been located on the Norristown State Hospital grounds in Norristown. It was sitting on acreage conveyed back to the Municipality of Norristown for development. The brick-and-mortar facility effectively closed when the lease lapsed in June 2022. No new facility has been built.

No formal plans have been presented to West Norriton Township officials at this time. Bobst said state or county funding would be crucial for development.

“So with the conditional use process, we can dictate hours of operation, security levels of services (and) what goes on,” he said. “For us, we don’t want this to just be a homeless shelter or transitional housing, we want it to be almost like a triage center where people can get services, help looking for jobs, for housing.”

“So it’s more than just a shelter,” he continued. “It’s a service center in a way, and we have not had any conversations on who would operate this, or where it would be on the property, but we have the ability to plan for it. So that’s why we want to try to do it now.”

A similar project was previously on the docket before the Lower Providence Township officials, but elected officials paused proceedings last week on zoning considerations related to the short term housing facility in Eagleville after the proposal was met with staunch opposition from area residents.

But Bobst said he doesn’t necessarily expect the same in his township due to the original framework of the Norristown State Hospital as West Norriton Township houses “the active remaining side of the hospital property.”

“This is an active hospital that had a homeless shelter on it previously,” he said. “So I don’t think the use is going to scare anyone, so to speak. But again, we want to put the guardrails in place (so) that we can address those concerns now with the zoning we’re going to put in place to say this is not just something that can come in here. We’re going to have a review process. There’s still land development. There’s a lot of things where the community will still have a say.”

The next West Norriton Township Board of Commissioners work session is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 7.