It’s not the Zoning Hearing Board’s responsibility to craft strategy on behalf of the residents of Bethlehem

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Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly:

Your header regarding ZHB decisions indicating a desire to change Bethlehem’s character is a very interesting one. However, it’s not the ZHB’s responsibility to craft any overall desire or strategy on behalf of the residents of Bethlehem. Rather it’s their responsibility to review and act upon each request on a case by case basis. A recent commenter on a post I placed on my Facebook page expressed it succinctly when she wrote, “a zoning board is supposed to uphold the “essential character of the neighborhood.”

Dana

Zoning Hearing Board decisions may indicate a desire to change Bethlehem’s character

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Gadfly #2 Bill Scheirer does the math (probably a 1000 new apartment units on line) and makes us wonder if there is a conscious policy to change the character of our town.

In the approaching Christmas season during which we all will be watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” again (and again), Bill makes Gadfly #00 think of Bethlehem as Bedford Falls and reminds him of the resident in public comment at Council a year or so ago who spoke of the “Capra-esque” quality of our town.

We do have that kind of charm.

Are we in danger of losing it?

  • “We have constructed or proposed or in various stages of approval 12 apartment projects in the City of Bethlehem, 5 on the Southside, 4 on the West Side, and 3 on the Northside.”
  • “Let’s say 30 variances were requested, 2 were rejected.”
  • “That’s a 90% approval rate when a developer appears before the Zoning Hearing Board.”
  • “It would seem that the Zoning Hearing Board has a desire to see Bethlehem change, change its character.”
  • “And it’s up to us to decide if that’s what we want Bethlehem to become.”
  • “Do we want it to become a more dynamic and more busy and more congested and more noisy and become like many other small cities with pretensions.”

Neighbor-produced-data relevant to 2 W. Market

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Fighting for one’s neighborhood. Always a good thing in Gadfly’s book.

Yesterday Gadfly focused on the forceful testimony of Paige Van Wirt before the Zoning Hearing Board on November 12 as a model of good citizenship.

Gadfly does the same today with the example of Martin Romeril.

The issue in the 2 W. Market case is the insertion of a business in a residential neighborhood.

Unbelievably, from the beginning of the recent chapter of this case, the nature of the neighborhood as “residential” has been questioned, despite what the zoning map says.

Go back to post 49 in this (so-far) journey of 89 posts with Gadfly, the post “CM Callahan on ‘the 2’.”

Here’s what Councilman Callahan had to say about a year ago: “I think what it comes down to is, the main question is this, where does the residential neighborhood begin and where does it end? And the bottom line is it doesn’t. It doesn’t. There’s nobody that can tell me where the residential community in that neighborhood on that block begins and ends.”

As Gadfly said back in December, “The zoning code says 2 W. Market is in an area zoned residential. [Callahan] says, in effect, there is no residential area there.”

That subjective suspension of the zoning code by a Councilman bowled the then innocent Gadfly over.

Now around the same time the City — which supported the owner of 2 W. Market and is now vigorously opposing the validity challenge — produced a map that also seemed to have the same effect, the downplaying of the residential nature of the West Market neighborhood and thus minimizing the impact of the inserted business.

Enter Romeril.

And his production of a color-coded map that shows the neighborhood 87.3% residential!

Romeril map

Here is Romeril testifying about his work at the November 12 Zoning Hearing Board meeting:

But Romeril’s investigative work didn’t end there.

When the City attorney posed this question — “Mr. Romeril, you expressed some concern about the impact of 1304.4b throughout the City, have you been able to identify other parcels where 1304.4b might apply?” —  he seemed surprised that Romeril’s “Yes” answer was embodied in a 3-page chart, done with the help of a friend, based on evidence offered by the 2 W. Market attorney:Romeril chartGadfly invites you to note the long silence at the end of the following clip with which the City attorney responded to Romeril’s work:

Romeril didn’t just accept the study done by the City.

Romeril didn’t just accept the research done by the 2 W. Marketers.

He challenged both and provided data that supported the neighbors’ position.

It is, of course, by no means clear that the neighbors will win this latest round before the Zoning Hearing Board in this marathon controversy (everyone seems to feel resolution in the courts will be necessary), but Gadfly is pleased to help disseminate these examples of active citizen involvement as models for us all when we need to struggle for the quality of our neighborhood life.

The Hearing Board meets again on this case December 11.

City Council meeting tonight, Tuesday, November 19, 7PM, Town Hall

Our next City Council meeting — the “face” of Bethlehem City government — occurs tomorrow night Tuesday, November 19, Town Hall, at 7PM.

These meetings are video-recorded and can be viewed LIVE or later at your convenience on the City’s website after the meeting at https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Calendar.

The YouTube channel for live or archive viewing is “City of Bethlehem Council.”

Find the Council agenda and documents here: https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Calendar/Meetings/2019/CityCouncil/38

As always, as long as he has flutter in his wings, Gadfly urges attending City Council live or virtually — one way or the other.

Be informed.

The 2 W. Market beat goes on

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Gadfly has lost count. But there was another 4hr meeting of the Zoning Hearing Board last week on the challenge to the validity of a text amendment to the “storefront”  ordinance originally intended to apply to properties like the one on the left but benefiting 2 W. Market on the right — an ordinance passed by a Council, in Gadfly’s opinion, not in its best hour.

This is the 88th post on the long history over the controversy of the zoning on 2 W. Market, and followers can refresh themselves on that history by clicking the link on the Gadfly sidebar.

Gadfly loves examples of citizen participation, of which there were several at this meeting, and he invites you here to both learn about the issues surrounding 2 W. Market and to enjoy a model of good citizenship through the testimony of Paige Van Wirt.

How does this zoning amendment impair or impede the residential character of the neighborhood? (3 mins.)

  • “There’s no families in this business to watch little kids on the street, there’s nobody to see that somebody fell down on the corner.”

What are your concerns given that this property is on the edge of a commercial district? (1 min.)

  • “Now this neighborhood is struggling to come back and have a full residential character to it. Any conversion . . . of a previously healthy residential home . . . is going to erode the fabric of my neighborhood.”

Do you have concerns about commercial creep? (1 min.)

  • “This does give a signal that our neighborhood’s zoning is not a wall.”

Will this amendment erode the reliability of the zoning ordinance? (1 min.)

  • “As a homeowner . . . I would be much less inclined to buy a property on this block if I felt there were going to be more commercial/residential flips.”

Describe the importance of drafting the memo to the City Planning Director asking for more data? (2 mins.)

  • “My concern was that there was no impact study done by the City. . . . that we were asked at City Council to adopt an ordinance where there had been no data and research done.”

Does the amendment support the general health, safety, and welfare of the residents of Bethlehem? (1 min.)

  • “I understand why this is in the best interests of Quadrant, I get it, they did a great job on the building, but it doesn’t pass the litmus test of being in the best interest of the City, and that’s fundamentally what City Council is here as a representative body of the citizens of Bethlehem to do.”

Interesting material came out as Van Wirt parried with one of the attorneys under cross-examination. (9 mins.)

  • “This is a border neighborhood. . . . You’re not going to go six blocks in to the middle of Wall St. to try to set up a business there.”

Are you familiar with uses of the properties on your block? (1 min.)

  • “If this amendment could be so broadly applied that it would affect my own home, it made me understand the potential impact this would have on the rest of the City.”

Why did you wait so long before requesting data from the City? (2 mins.)

  • “Call me naive, but I never thought it would get that far. Once it was apparent that there was enough people on Council considering voting for it, that’s when I said, O, my God, I’ve got to show them, I’ve got to prove to Council why this is not in the best interest of the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Bethlehem. . . . That’s my job”

The hearing board will convene again December 11 to continue consideration of this case.

Planning Committee needs to take public-trust-building steps

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Gadfly earlier this week reported the desire to have last Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting on the Armory moved from 4PM to a later time to accommodate the work schedules of more residents who wanted to attend. That didn’t happen, though residents were afforded the opportunity to make appointments to view planning documents in City Hall. At the meeting, moreover, residents were thwarted by and complained about inability to see the plans proposed, which were displayed on easels in front of the Head Table and visible only to the Commission members. Resident spectators could not see what the developer was showing the Commission. Beginning January the PC will move its meeting time to 5PM, which, though not perfect, is a step in the right direction. But, as Armory neighbor Jeff Pooley points out in the audio clip from the meeting and this email below, there are additional steps needed to make PC meetings resident friendly. Jeff describes that the effect if not the intent of PC practice is to “exclude” the neighbors, of creating a feeling of “not encouraging public comment.”

November 15, 2019

To: Darlene Heller, Director of Planning; Tracy Samuelson, Assistant Director of Planning; Rob Melosky, Planning Commission Chair

Dear Darlene, Tracy and Rob (if I may),

I am writing a quick follow up to the Planning Commission meeting last night—not about the substance, but about the public-input issues I raised in my comments. (I was one of the members of the public who spoke about the Armory application.)

Let me first say that I was, and remain, very grateful for your kind help, Tracy, when you showed me through the plans and answered my questions. Rob, I want to commend you for running a humane and fair meeting, with real empathy for residents and their concerns. It was noticed, and appreciated.

If I left with a bad taste in my mouth, it was entirely about the process up to and including the meeting—and that’s why I’m writing. (I am cc’ing Ed Gallagher, who I know shares some of these concerns.)

The news about the shift to 6pm meetings is genuinely thrilling, and answers one of my concerns. The City and Planning Commission could make additional, small moves in the same spirit—to encourage public input.

The first would be to post all application materials, including the City’s reply letter, as one or more PDF downloads on the City’s website.

The second would be to project those plans/PDF on the existing projection system during meetings, so the public is not shut out (as happened last night).

Every document in any application—even the large architectural renderings—now exists as a digital document. It would be a trivial matter to collect them into one or more PDFs for (1) download prior to a meeting and (2) digital display during the meeting. If materials are now delivered in paper form, the City could require digital copies too.

(Just to be clear, the PDF download that *was* posted prior to the meeting was a tiny, and completely uninformative, subset of the application that the public is entitled to. That is not what I am referring to.)

In the meantime—while a system like this is being implemented—my strong recommendation is that members of the public be permitted to take photographs, and or make copies (at a reasonable fee), of these public documents. I honestly wonder whether that restriction is even legal.

These seem, from the outside, like legitimacy- and public-trust-building steps that are nearly cost-fee. There’s certainly no justification, in 2019, for not sharing digital copies, nor for relying exclusively on unidirectional easels that, in effect, exclude the public.

I would love to work with you, and help in any way (including technical advice, given my day job 🙂 ), to make these small changes happen. I was pretty frustrated, and want to channel that feeling into helping to make a change—one that seems utterly feasible.

Thanks for reading.
Sincerely
Jeff
Needless to say, Jeff’s points apply to other City agencies as well using Town Hall. We need to keep pushing for the means for effective public participation in all areas of City government.

The cost to the quality of life from development could be greatly lessened if there was a true spirit of cooperation and collaboration

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Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

I have to chuckle at the “we’re communicating” comment. Communication suggests two way listening and achieving some sort of consensus and compromise as a result. That has certainly not been the case here and in a number of other areas of Bethlehem. It’s a lot easier for some to cry NIMBY, but the usual fact of the matter is that residents in established areas are open to development, but they want it to be compatible with the established environment, which it usually isn’t. I think it’s fantastic that people want to invest in Bethlehem, but it comes at a cost to the quality of life, which I believe could be greatly lessened if there was a true spirit of cooperation and collaboration between those already here and those who are coming. Establishing that kind of landscape in any community takes leadership. I’ll leave my observation at that.

Dana