Bethlehem Moment 4
January 2, 2019
Ed Gallagher 49 W. Greenwich
A Bethlehem Moment: February 24, 1926
On February 24, 1926, the Bethlehem version of the open-range Wild West ended. The new sheriff in town, two years in the studying, was Bethlehem’s first zoning ordinance, whose purpose, in the exact same words of our zoning ordinance today, was to “preserve the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.” If the zoning ordinance was Wyatt Earp, the Real Estate Board was the villainous Clanton family. The ordinance was ready to go in November 1925, but the Real Estate Board succeeded in getting it delayed till the next Council took office. If this ordinance becomes law, Bethlehem’s industrial growth is at an end, they said. Commercial interests constitute the life blood of the city, they said. Taxes will rise, they said. “You can sewer us up, but don’t zone us,” they said. The ordinance is so lengthy, complicated, and obscure, it’s utterly impossible for even the most intelligent man to digest, they said. The Real Estate Board generated a large crowd that turned an informational meeting heated. They claimed that 98% of businessmen on the West Side were opposed to zoning. On February 15, the day of the first reading, a petition to abandon the ordinance signed by 114 residents was delivered to City Council. On February 24, the day of the second reading, the Real Estate Board presented a 10-point manifesto climaxing in the claim that the Zoning Board of Appeals was open to favoritism and discrimination. But the ordinance prevailed. As one wise head remarked at the time, “more property values are destroyed for lack of zoning than by fire.”
“City Engineer Tells Real Estate Board of Zoning Ordinance,” Morning Call, December 15, 1925,
“Voices Opposition to Zoning Ordinance,” Morning Call, December 29, 2015.
“Real Estate Board Wants Zoning Plan Further Considered,” Morning Call, January 4, 1926.
“Zoning Ordinance under Discussion, Morning Call, January 13, 1926.
“’Special Interest’ Talk Heard at Zoning Ordinance Hearing,” Morning Call, January 23, 1926.
“Several Banks Join Real Estate Board,’ Morning Call, February 2, 1926.
“Zone Bill Passes the First Reading,” Morning Call, February 16, 1926.
“Zone Bill Passes Second and Final Reading in Council,” Morning Call, February 25, 1926.
“Council Faces Problem in Zone Bill Appeal Board,” Morning Call, March 1,1926.
“Realtors Discuss Multiple Listings, also Fire Final Gun at Zoning Ordinance,” Morning Call, March 2, 1926.
“Permits Refused under Zone Ordinance,” Morning Call, February 7, 1927.
One thought on “Bethlehem Moment 4: Zoning comes to town”
Gadfly, this Bethlehem Moment was very apropos considering the recent controversy around amending the zoning ordinance on behalf of Quadrant Wealth Management. However, what you related about the reaction by the Real Estate Board reminded me even more of our effort in 2017 to pass an ethics ordinance. In this recent effort the villanous Clanton family was played by some city council members. Some of their arguments in opposition were even the same – too costly!, too complicated! (It was 31 pages long). One member even complained that theirs is a part-time job, as if that excused them from reading something so lengthy and complicated. They even enlisted DA Morganelli to give them cover for rejecting it. What they objected to more than anything was the proposition of an independent community oversight board. DA Morganelli was astounded by the idea of an unelected group of citizens sitting in judgment of them (interesting coming from someone who puts his trust in juries). It just goes to show you that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to challenging powerful political forces Unlike the first zoning ordinance, the effort at ethics reform was defeated. Oh they did pass ethics training and gift ordinances but those were merely window dressing and with no real impact — outcomes predicted by experts in municipal ethics.