Bethlehem Manor: the Zoning Board deliberates and votes

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Manor and Neighborhoods)

(Some clued-in followers will recognize that Gadfly refrained from using the name of the Bethlehem Manor representative — a name that comes with some baggage in local circles. Gadfly tried to think about this case on its merits, without prejudice, as the Zoning Hearing Board should be expected to.)

So we come to crunch-time. The Board deliberation and vote.

Unfortunately, we do not get to hear the Board deliberation as we do in, I think, all other boards and commissions — and City Council. In most other cases, we have an idea of why members are voting the way they do.

The Zoning Hearing Board is considered a quasi-judicial body (all witnesses are sworn in!), and thus they deliberate out of public view.

The Board deliberated roughly 20 minutes.

The vote was 3-2 to deny the proposal.

During the roll call, one of the two deniers paused a good 5 seconds before voting, indicating some indecision.

Ha! So perhaps the true vote was 3.5 to 1.5 against the Bethlehem Manor proposal.

As he said earlier, Gadfly was surprised (smart money and water-cooler chat usually believes that in Bethlehem voting favors the builder/developer), and he wishes he knew the basis of the votes.

As he also said earlier, when all is said and done, “we” depend on Board members who are intelligent, objective, fair, and empathetic.

We depend on good Board members. We depend on the Mayor to provide them, Council to appoint them, and Council to hold them accountable.

We can judge some of those traits from their behavior in the open part of the hearings and in the brute fact of their vote, but it is in deliberation where those traits would be most needed and most visible.

‘Tis unfortunate that we are not privy to the best evidence we could have of Board member suitability. Thus, the initial selection process is extra-special in the case of the Zoning Board.

More on that in a following post.

Where does the case go from here?

Bethlehem Manor will appeal to Northampton County Court.

If the denial here locally was based primarily on neighborhood “quality of life” issues — as Gadfly suspects it was — then how will that play at the county court level?

Gadfly is not sure, but the Bethlehem Manor attorney seemed confident, and you can hear him laying the groundwork for appeal on the Manor’s compliance with all technical issues:

Neighborhood concerns may not play well at the higher level.

Does this series of posts give you an idea of a Zoning Hearing Board process?

Gadfly will be on the lookout for action at the next level and keep you apprised.

The Bethlehem Manor case: field trip!

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Manor and Neighborhoods)

So have you been playing along? What decision would you make if you were on the Zoning Hearing Board?

At the historic commissions, planning commission, and zoning board hearings, Gadfly has often thought a field trip would be helpful for the members.

Those bodies work from photos, sketches, design plans, blueprints, verbal testimony, etc. I wonder why video is not used. A laptop set up at the “Mayor’s desk” would make it possible, I think. And maybe it could be helpful at times.

Gadfly was struck by neighbor Anne Lendzinski’s comment that what Bethlehem Manor wanted to do was appropriate at their Saucon Valley Manor facility but not the “homey environment” of Pennsylvania Ave.

So Gadfly decided to get a personal feel for the validity of her point and take a field trip to both locations and take (unfortunately) unprofessional videos.

Here are two short videos on Bethlehem Manor: Bethlehem Manor 1 and Bethlehem Manor 2.

And here are two short videos on another facility owned by the same company, Saucon Valley Manor, Main St., Hellertown: Saucon Valley Manor 1 and Saucon Valley Manor 2.

Does Anne have a point?

Would “being there” help the Board make a decision?

Bethlehem Manor: “It’s a nice homey environment. We’re in, you know, a neighborhood.”

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Manor and Neighborhoods)

Ok, back to our “anatomy” lesson on a Zoning Board hearing, focusing on Bethlehem Manor’s proposal to construct an addition to their Rosemont school personal care facility that will enable a 70% increase in population.

We’ve seen the Administrator testimony; we’ve seen the neighbor testimony. What about the role of the Zoning Board?

The Zoning panel is made up of 5 residents nominated by the Mayor and appointed by City Council.

The members of the Zoning Board are the most important factor in these cases. Both sides argue their positions.

But the Board decides.

Members of the Zoning Board — it goes without saying — must be intelligent, objective, fair. And maybe “empathetic” would be a good addition to a list of desirable traits.

One of the members of this panel is currently an alternate member of the Board but is up for appointment as a full member at tonight’s City Council meeting. Gadfly will post on this important appointment later today. Stay tuned.

But for now look at this few minute selection of the Board questioning the Bethlehem Manor Administrator to get a flavor of the interaction.

The interaction between Board and Administrator elicits several important points. The motivation for the expansion is the desire to provide private rooms to meet concrete demand for them, a demand she did not realize at the beginning. The Administrator elaborates on the reason people want private rooms to start, how movement to shared rooms at the same location is fostered when money becomes an issue, why she wants to fill that demand at this Rosemont school location rather than elsewhere, how she interacts with neighbors — while indicating her confidence that she would fill the new space in quick order.

Good points. Worthwhile listening to this interchange if you are playing Board member as Gadfly was and weighing what your decision would be.

But, ironically, the Administrator, in praising the neighborhood — in Gadfly’s opinion — makes the neighbor’s case. In answering a question about why a fence was not erected along the outside recreation area as promised in the original Zoning approval in 2016, the Administrator says:

It’s a nice homey environment. We’re in, you know, a neighborhood, and to take a fence and put it there, you know, you’re 95 years old and you’re looking at a fence. You know it’s not as attractive. . . .It’s nice for them to look out.

Wow! There’s the crux. The neighbors talk about such a large addition rending “the fabric” of the neighborhood, and Bethlehem Manor’s position is that they precisely want to provide their often very senior personal care residents with the feel of a neighborhood.

See what makes this an interesting case?

Other residents testifying against Bethlehem Manor

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Manor and Neighborhoods)

In addition to Brian Nicas, three other residents testified against the Bethlehem Manor proposal.

They represent an interesting range of approaches.

022Elaine Torres — whose house is in the Manor’s “backyard” — carrying the dog of her deceased mother — not in the best of health — brought an emotional storm to the proceedings, chastising the Bethlehem Manor team for unresolved operational issues — like mosquitoes from the “rain gardens” that made it hard to work in her yard — literally, vigorously calling out the architect. She had to be soft-gaveled back to decorum twice or thrice by the chair. Gadfly would not recommend a heavy diet of such resident testimony at proceedings such as this, but, on the other hand, he must admit that this spectacle of raw anger and anxiety — so different from the conduct of the other proposal critics — starkly reminded him that these proceedings were not just a paper exercise performed by slickly dressed lawyers.

Bill Scheirer — better known as Gadfly #2 — spoke with his 029
signature compelling softness, and spoke directly to the Board, making a meaningful distinction aimed at the wonks on the Board. Adaptive reuse of a surplus school is one thing, said this cool customer, but the Bethlehem Manor proposal is entirely different. It is expansion not adaptive re-use. Leave it to Gadfly-deuce to make sure the argument was framed properly.

It was Anne Lendzinski whom Gadfly thought asked the two most pertinent and incisive questions of the night:

  • “You were already the Administrator at Saucon Valley and at Whitehall, so I don’t understand how can you not project the need for private rooms if you were already building on your other building for private room demand.”
  • “This is a huge expanse. There are already engineering issues that have not been resolved, so why this expansion when those existing issues are not fixed yet?”

010In her first question, Anne struck deep at the heart of a damning inconsistency. How could an accomplished and experienced personal care home Administrator not have been thinking about the move to private rooms from the get-go? The question undercut the narrative — the origin myth, if you will — that Bethlehem Manor was positing.

To her credit, the Administrator had a good come-back — she was working, she said, from the pervasive model in this Rosemont neighborhood exemplified, for instance in Holy Family Manor — but for Gadfly the question itself was telling in his own decision-making.

The second question — tapping the network of troublesome details of the Bethlehem Manor operation — just seemed to call attention to the fact that Bethlehem Manor was not the squeaky clean good neighbor it proclaimed itself to be and thus had not earned this vote of confidence from the neighborhood.

Gadfly looks back on the short Anne-Administrator dialogue here as a turning point for him.

Bethlehem Manor’s position: the elderly deserve the honor and privilege of living their last years in a nice neighborhood

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Manor and Neighborhoods)

In Gadville there are always two (or more) sides to an issue.

So let’s look at how the Bethlehem Manor argued for acceptance of their proposal.

The BM administrator stated that in the course of marketing the facility she determined a new demand for/discovered a market for a type of room that she didn’t anticipate and can’t currently satisfy: “a private room with a private bathroom.”

Now if someone wants a private room, she offers space in her other locations in Whitehall and Hellertown, but often location (they do serve families in the immediate Rosemont neighborhood) is key, and families want to stay in this area: “location is a huge factor.”

The Administrator spoke of the economies involved in adding a building to this location rather than opening another facility at a separate location and further stated that the proposed addition was necessary for her business to stay competitive.

Not very dramatic video, but you can begin to judge the character of the Administrator (and through her Bethlehem Manor) in her opening testimony on these subjects and several other subjects here:

Testimony from neighbors raised a series of problems running from cigarette butts to mosquitoes to traffic, and in her rebuttal the Administrator made a rather remarkable  impassioned defense of her specific mission and the cause of the elderly in general.

Don’t skip this audio:

  • “I know the neighborhood has not been impacted negatively, and it won’t be, giving us the honor of adding 54 more beds.”
  • “We’re just asking for our residents to have a good quality of life too without hurting any of the neighbors or the neighborhood.”
  • “They just want to have a good quality of life, hopefully they have 20-30 years, but some have 2 or 3, and they deserve that as well.”
  • “They are equally as important. Just because they’re older and they’re in a personal care home does not diminish the fact that once they were home owners, once they were people more contributing to the community, but that should take away their desire and our need to give them a good quality of life.”
  • “We want to be good neighbors, but, also, yes, we want to satisfy the market, which means satisfying the elderly.”
  • “It’s not about just making the money.”
  • “But it is hard if you’ve ever cared for someone elderly.”
  • “54 residents in their rooms, in their building are not going to change anything for the neighborhood.”
  • “I only request and ask that you give the other 54 residents . . . the honor and privilege of living their last years in a neighborhood that is very nice and they should deserve that.”

Were you expecting all that?

The Bethlehem Manor Administrator turns “quality of life” on its head. The personal care residents deserve good quality of life too!

Gadfly found the Administrator’s statement powerful. She defended her position with emotional vigor.

So the Zoning Board decision was not an obvious one to Gadfly.

Let’s go on to look at a few more aspects of the hearing.

Bethlehem Manor neighbors present a petition to the Zoning Hearing Board

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Manor and Neighborhoods)

Gadfly assumes that you (well, most of you ) are like him and have never had the opportunity to look “inside” a zoning hearing, the place and the process where so much important to the quality of life in our neighborhoods is decided.

Thus, over a few posts, he’d like to talk about the Bethlehem Manor (815 Pennsylvania Avenue) proposal to expand the number of beds 70% in their assisted living/personal care facility via a new addition to the original building.

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After approval by the Planning Commission on July 11, the proposal was denied by the Zoning Hearing Board August 14. Bethlehem Manor will appeal that decision to Northampton County Court.

This is an interesting case for us to look at.

Bethlehem Manor is located in the old Rosemont School. After some controversy, Bethlehem Manor’s proposal to re-purpose the school as an assisted living/personal care facility was granted in 2016, and the facility opened in May 2017, just over two years ago.

Re-purposing an unused school building, we might all generally agree, is a good thing.

Personal care facilities, we might all generally agree, are good things.

What is rather surprising in this instance, what is immediately attention-getting is the — would you disagree? — huge percent of the proposed increase in beds and, perhaps as well, the short time since the original request was proposed.

Surely, this is a case in which Bethlehem Manor must be called upon to make a very strong supporting case.

But who will “force” them to do so? Who will provide the necessary friction to make sure the proposed change is good for the Rosemont neighborhood?

Perhaps like me, some of you will say “the City.” You will say the City looks out for “us.” Well, not so fast.

Take a look at this detailed letter from the City responding to the Bethlehem Manor proposal.

Lots there.

But looks like the City can only be depended upon to hold Bethlehem Manor’s feet to the fire in terms of technical requirements. There is nothing in the City response relative to what we might call “quality of life” aspects.

So, no, “people” issues are up to us. Though, as far as Gadfly knows, the City is mandated to help public awareness by — at least seven days prior — posting notices of hearings in the newspaper, providing notices (regular mail) to adjoining property owners, providing notices to property owners within 300 feet. Also, proposers must likewise post notices of hearings in conspicuous spots on their properties at least one week ahead.

Now Gadfly has more than once heard residents complain they were not “aware” of issues and hearings. Gadfly is realist enough to know that many people simply don’t pay attention and that the City can not always be blamed for their ignorance, but — especially since better ways to communicate with residents is being studied right now — there might be improvements in this system in this new technological age in which people are accessing information in different ways.

So, it’s up to “us” to be aware of what concerns us and to take active measures.

And so, in this case, neighborhood resident Brian Nicas took the initiative to circulate a petition eventually signed by 25 other residents that he presented to the Zoning Hearing Board August 14.

Bethlehem Manor resident petition.jpeg

Gadfly is pleased to offer Brian’s complete presentation on audio and a portion of it on video as an example of the kind of productive citizen participation that he loves to highlight and which stimulated two other neighbors to speak out at the meeting as well (we’ll “hear” from them in later posts).

 

Bottom line — the residents were successful in this instance. Their involvement and their participation paid off. But in the next few posts let’s look a little deeper at the dynamics of the meeting and understand how the process played out.

Pennsylvania Avenue Bethlehem Manor expansion denied at Zoning

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Manor and Neighborhoods)

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After being approved by the Planning Commission a month ago, a major expansion of the Bethlehem Manor assisted-living facility in the old Rosemont school on Pennsylvania Avenue was denied by the Zoning Board Wednesday night.

It’s an understatement to call the proposal a “major expansion” — it’s a 70% increase in the number of beds in this residential area setting.

The substantial size of the expansion, coupled with memory of resident agitation over the original approval of the Manor in the school building, jumped out at Gadfly when he stumbled across the notice on the Planning Commission agenda. The proposal had not received any public notice or press as far as Gadfly could tell.

In his last post on this proposal, Gadfly expressed surprise “that such a large increase in this residential area is going down so far so smoothly.”

Several Bethlehem residents with negative views spoke forcefully against the project Wednesday, however, and now Gadfly expresses surprise at the denial by Zoning, which in his experience (admittedly, on the short side) does not seem all that common.

Always anxious to profile citizen participation, Gadfly will provide a more detailed report of this interesting meeting shortly.

In the meantime, please note these two previous posts on the subject to come up to speed.

“Neighborhood Watch: Rosemont Area Alert!”
“Large Bethlehem Manor addition approved by Planning Commission”

Charles Malinchak, “City denies Bethlehem Manor’s plan for expansion.” Morning Call, August 15, 2019.

A plan to build a 54-unit addition to a Bethlehem elder care facility was shot down Wednesday night by the city zoning hearing board. The board’s 3-2 vote denied variances that would have allowed developer Abe Atiyeh’s Bethlehem Manor to build a 2½-story addition to the facility on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bethlehem Manor was created by converting what was once Rosemont Elementary School after obtaining a variance from the zoning board in 2016 to operate a personal care facility in a residential zone.

Nimita Kapoor Atiyeh, who manages the Bethlehem, Whitehall and Saucon Valley Manors, said after the hearing that the company would appeal the decision. “I am gung ho to keep moving ahead,” she said. “I am passionate about the elderly and I want what’s right for them.”

Kapoor Atiyeh, who is the wife of Abe Atiyeh, testified that there has been increased demand for private rooms, which is why it was decided to move ahead with an expansion.

Fifty-four residents in their rooms will not change the neighborhood,” she said. “I want to give these people the honor and privilege of living out their last years in dignity.”

Several residents spoke out against the project, citing issues of noise from ambulances, its unsuitability to the neighborhood, traffic and the possibility that an expansion would lead to further expansion.

Brian Nicas, who resides in the neighborhood on Tioga Street, presented the board a petition signed by more than 25 residents, all opposed to the addition. “I’m not against health care facilities, I just don’t think it is appropriate for this site,” he said.

Anne Lendzinski, who lives near the facility on Kenmore Avenue, said, “Your facilities work well in Hellertown and Whitehall because they are in mixed-use areas. In our neighborhood it does not work well. Don’t build another building.”