“We know our neighbors . . . We’re thrilled” (17)

(17th in a series of posts on 2 W. Market St.)

A good 15 neighbors of 2 W. Market stepped up to support the petition.

They were in the nature of character witness, both to the owners themselves as well as the quality of workmanship performed on the house.

The very first to speak – Jean Sieman (Gadfly hopes he has the name right) – is representative.

Jean Sieman

“I just want to say that I am pleased and delighted with the improvements that have been made here at 2 W. Market St., and I believe that the occupants of the building will continue to take care of this property. They already have walked the talk. They have been a great neighbor. They have also been a great supporter of Historic Bethlehem museums and sites. And I would love to see them stay. And I ask that you please help to this end.”

The remarks of these supporters were peppered with high praise superlatives. Here are typical sound bites.

  • I love and respect my neighbors
  • They did an incredible job of improving that property and making it a gorgeous gateway to Market St.
  • They did a phenomenal job on the building
  • They support local businesses
  • I hope they’ll be there for a long time
  • It’s a fabulous building
  • It’s incredible inside, incredible outside
  • I only wish I had a neighbor like this renovating to this fabulous beauty and historic significance
  • It’s a job well done
  • We’re glad to have you here
  • You couldn’t ask for better neighbors
  • It’s a joy to watch this magnificent building
  • We’re grateful that someone was willing to step up and insure the future of this historic building
  • Exemplary job, exemplary building!
  • The owners uphold the values we all hold dear
  • We were concerned what would happen because of the investment in our home nearby
  • Their interest in investment in city is deeply rooted
  • They have enhanced the value of the community

Some people deserve more than a soundbite, however:

Suzanne Virgilio

“I’m here to speak very much in favor of what has happened at 2 W. Market . . . We were very concerned [when the house went for sale]  . .  . You cannot get a residential loan for that property  . . . Yeah, it’s a great home. It would be wonderful to have a family live there with lots of kids and I could go over and borrow a cup of sugar, but there’s no yard, it does not offer the amenities that people with children would look for in a house on a busy intersection in a downtown neighborhood. So when Quadrant was in the process and eventually purchased the building, we were thrilled, thrilled because the property could be made into a nursing home [etc.]  . . . All of which we were fearing as property owners and as neighbors with children  . . . What they have done to improve the property any other city would welcome with open arms  . . . It’s magnificent  . . . It’s increased our property value, it has increased the integrity of the neighborhood .. . . We know our neighbors . . . We’re thrilled . . . We want to see it continue. We know that it will be improved beyond our expectations.”

Claire Rij

“I have heard some things tonight . . . that have been somewhat hurtful to me. I was born on that street . . . I walked that cemetery [with my mother] maybe that’s where my love for Bethlehem came from . . . When my mother died . . . I named the garden building at the Burnside Plantation after her . . . My mother was the one who started the Arts program for the children . . . For years I maintained the garden next to the library . . . I took care of it because my mother loved gardening. I hear people talking about the fact that this building is going to be a turnover. I hope that as a mother I instilled in my daughter Kori . . . the love of Bethlehem. They have lived here all their lives. And I don’t see them walking away from this . . . They have been part of Bethlehem all their lives . . . The money we put into that building was not because it was an office . . . it had never been updated . . . The dollar price to fix those Green buildings . . . $400,000. Now if you know somebody who wants to buy a family house with no yard . . . but in addition wants to take on the responsibility of putting $400,000 into Green buildings so that they can have a commercial entity, please introduce them to me. I don’t know what that person is . . . I would be very concerned about that house sitting empty . . . We will leave it.”

Robert Virgilio

“[31 years Bed and Breakfast across the street] People thought we were going to create a brothel, they were all misinformed, misunderstood . . . we worked through it . . . underwent tremendous scrutiny . . . got it approved. We didn’t run out of town . . . This was on the market when the market was down . . . What more can you ask for? . . . I have skin in the game . . . It’s a fantastic use, why roll the dice and see what happens?”

Jason Cort

“Public good . . . common sense . . . I’m not a lawyer . . . we love this neighborhood, we love Bethlehem, we want to be here for a long, long time . . . we want to do what’s right by the community . . . to do what’s in the best interest of the community . . . we didn’t move forward in a reckless manner . . . we delayed multiple years to do it right.”

Now we move on to neighbors — less in number but equally as passionate — who spoke against the petition. How’s it going for you? What are you thinking?

City gets an A+ ! (1)

(1st in a series of posts on the Budget)

Proposed 2019 Budget

What’s the City budget? Any idea?

Ballpark of $75,000,000/yr.

That’s $1000 per Bethlehem resident.

Wow! Gadfly never knew.

Gadfly knows you will say he needs a life, but he is looking forward to 5 budget meetings over the next couple weeks.

The Mayor has proposed the 2019 budget (see the link above), and now Council goes over it closely over the course of these 5 meetings.

It may be about the most important work that Council does.

Gadfly has attended meetings over the last few weeks where Council members have applauded the current A+ credit rating the City enjoys, which, I gather, in fairly recent history was not always so good.

Gadfly will report on the proceedings.

Nicole’s  articles will fill you in on the Mayor’s proposal.

Nicole Radzievich, “Bethlehem could see a tax hike next year.” Morning Call, November 10, 2018. (contains video of the mayor announcing)

Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez on Friday called for a 3.8 percent tax increase to balance a $78 million budget. The proposal would cost the average property owner an extra $34 a year, but the city will get enough money to fill a $3 million budget hole. The city’s pension payment is expected to increase by $2.2 million next year. The debt payment will rise by $250,000, and there are contractual raises in employee salaries. Donchez said the proposal will allow the city to maintain its strong balance sheet, which prompted Standard & Poor’s to award it an A+ credit rating, and keep the city safe, clean and a quality place to live.

Council President Adam Waldron said he had not received the budget as of Friday morning, but a small tax increase is expected. “The budget is very challenging because so many costs are fixed. There is little discretionary once you factor in public safety, pensions and health care,” Waldron said. “At each of the five budget hearings, council will do its best to identify anything unnecessary, but overall the administration has made some very positive decisions in the last couple years to get where we are … in regards to our bond rating and personnel head count.”

The tax increase will cover about $1 million of the projected budget hole next year. Bethlehem would make up another $1 million by reducing department budgets to what was spent in 2017. The city also will save about $750,000 when the operation of its 911 center is turned over to Northampton County by June of next year.

The proposed budget in Bethlehem would mean a tax hike of 0.67 mills in the Northampton County part of the city, bringing the total millage to 18.22 mills, and 0.21 mills in the Lehigh County part, bringing the total to 5.71 mills. The owner of a home assessed at $50,000 in Northampton County part would pay a $911 tax bill to the city.

Nicole Radzievich, “Here’s what Bethlehem’s proposed $5 million bond would go toward.” Morning Call, November 10, 2018.

Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez has proposed to borrow nearly $5 million to go toward covering some big-ticket projects in the next couple years.

For instance: Memorial Pool, Fire Dept trucks, Roads, Police body cameras.

For example:

Memorial pool

The city is hoping to make some waves with a new flagship pool on Illicks Mill Road. The old one, which was built 61 years ago, has been out-dated and in need of repairs. The city is about to launch a $4.5 million project to reconstruct it with more slides and more modern water play features, hoping to remake it as a destination pool. The pool was closed this year and is expected to be closed most of or all of next year while the construction takes place. (The neighborhood pools remain open.) The city has secured about $1.5 million in state grants for it and earmarked $600,000 brought in from recreation fees.

In the Gadfly house, budget times are narrow times.

Budget is a 4-letter word. “Holy Budget!” can often be heard rattling the windows.

Though there is an A+ rating for the City — and maybe because of it — there will be winners and losers.

“We do suggest some caution” (16)

(16th in a series of posts on 2 W. Market St.)

Atty Preston, then Kori Lannon for the owners of 2 W. Market – ok, let’s get everybody in here!

Where does the City stand on the matter?

The City is an important player in this process.

Darlene Heller, Director of Planning and Zoning, provided the Planning Commission with a guiding memo, as is usual procedure, and elaborated on the memo during the meeting after the presentation of the owner’s case.

Heller’s memo is here: City on 2 W. Market

And you can hear her “testimony” here (isn’t having these audios great!):

The key points for the City:

  • 2 W. was not originally built with a commercial store front.
  • Text amendments are not written for the relief of one party.
  • It is unclear which or how many properties would be affected by this text amendment.
  • There is no connection with the City’s Comprehensive Plan (which is linked on Gadfly’s sidebar – very interesting – take a look)

Here are the parts of Heller’s memo that Gadfly thought especially relevant:

Morning Star Partners owns the property at 2 W. Market St which is zoned RT.

The purpose of the Zoning Ordinance notes that the RT, High Density Residential District, is to provide for “higher density residential neighborhoods with a mix of housing types. However . . . [it] allows several non-residential uses. . . .by special exception.”

The occupancy is no longer permitted since the courts have overturned the approval.

[Section 1304.04] is intended to allow flexibility for the re-use of corner buildings originally built as a commercial storefront.

The attached petition expands on the existing section 1304.04 by proposing that a professional office use should also be permitted and that a storefront shall not be required.

It is unclear which or how many properties would be affected by this text amendment in the future. Although the amendment is specifically written to provide relief for the applicant’s property, there is no information related to the overall number of properties that will be affected.

Additionally, the City typically proposes amendments to address overall goals and objectives of the Comprehensive Plan or other planning documents. It is not the City’s practice to initiate text amendments that are written for specific, individual properties. If individual properties need relief from the zoning ordinance text, that relief would be sought through the Zoning Hearing Board.

There is no information about how many properties this amendment would affect in other areas of the City. Therefore, the end result of the amendment is unclear.

In her verbal remarks, Heller explained the genesis and rationale of section 1304.04, the subject of the proposed amendment. Heller said it was observed that some buildings with storefronts were vacant or had been turned into apartments, and the purpose of 1304.04 was to give some flexibility for owners for those storefronts to be reused as originally intended.

Also in her verbal remarks, Heller said the City was “not taking a position” on the petition, but that regarding a text amendment designed for a particular property, “we do suggest some caution.”

There was quite a bit of public comment at this Planning Commission meeting – that’s where we go next.

Stay with Gadfly on this issue, gang, we’re going deep!

“We love this building” (15)

(15th in a series of posts on 2 W. Market St.)

Everybody got that definition of “spot zoning”? Ok, let’s move on.

Attorney Preston made the legal case for the owners.

(Preston’s claim that the financial services business at 2 W. Market is now operating legally may not be right, though. See the City memo coming in the next post.)

Now we continue in our desire for understanding the petitioner’s viewpoint by listening to Kori Lannon, daughter of the owners and a member of the business, talking about her personal connection with the property.

Once again, you can listen to Lannon’s presentation, and Gadfly advises you to do so.

Kori Lannon (8 mins.)

The full text of Lannon’s presentation is also available: Kori Lannon 

Lannon’s presentation complements Preston’s. It is crafted to answer a series of specific questions about the owners and their goals and motivations, so Gadfly has taken the liberty of breaking up her presentation in a way that aids better focus for us.

When and why did we become interested in the house?

  • Our motivation to buy was the character of the house and well before we even had a business to house there; this was a house to start a business in, not a business looking for a house.

How did we see ourselves as owners?

  • We saw ourselves aligned with goals of the historic district, “excited to have become the stewards of this majestic and historic property.”

What did we want to do?

  • “We had a vision to restore the house to its magnificence of a century ago, to keep it true to the flavor of historic downtown Bethlehem.”

Who are we?

  • We are not outsiders, but people with roots here: “We are a group of Lehigh Valley people”; many born, raised, educated, live, work, and play locally.
  • We are active in and committed to the community, financially supporting the police, historical societies, the Arts, local and national charities.

How committed are we to the house?

  • “It took over two years of effort and hard work to get the proper zoning approval”; it was over three years before we moved in.

Can the neighbors trust us?

  • The evidence is plain to see: we have lived up to our promises and proposals, we have followed every guideline.

Have we had a negative impact on the neighborhood?

  • We’ve kept the property nice, we keep the sidewalks clear, we have not created a parking problem, we have no signs.

Isn’t the proof of our integrity plain to see?

  • All the unknowns of legitimate concerns in the past are now knowns, and “favorable knowns.”

Are we fighting for this property just for the business?

  • “We love this building. We love being a part of historic downtown Bethlehem. And contributing to its preservation in a meaningful way.”

What are our plans for the future?

  • “We hope to expand the rehabilitation on this property, to preserve the green buildings that are part of our parcel . . . a significant commitment.”

What are our long-term goals?

  • “Our strong desire is to continue to be a good neighbor and a reliable steward of this very special property.”

On what basis can we hope for your support?

  • Our vision has already been approved by the Bethlehem Zoning Board and the Northampton County Court, and we have “much local residential support.”

That completes the presentation of the owner’s side of the case.

Do you have any questions? How are you feeling about the owner’s claims?

Before we listen to witnesses who testified at the Planning Commission hearing — for and against the petition — we’ll consider what the City has to say. After the Commonwealth Court overruled the County Court’s upholding of the Zoning Board decision on appeal by neighbors in May 2018, the City issued an enforcement notice to vacate the premises.

“This is not spot zoning” (14)

(14th in a series of posts on 2 W. Market St.)

At the Planning Commission hearing November 8, Attorney Jim Preston represented the owner and Kori Lannon spoke as member of the firm now operating legally out of 2 W. Market St. We’ll take up Kori’s presentation next time. But Gadfly begins with Attorney Preston making the case.

You can hear Preston’s full presentation in his own words for yourself. Gadfly advises that you do that. Never completely trust the intermediary. Go to the source when you can.

Attorney Preston (22 mins.)

But Gadfly has provided a summary here as well.

Some key Preston points (what did Gadfly miss?):

  • this is a “text amendment,” not rezoning property
  • it will apply only to mixed-use residential/retail properties not any single-family dwelling
  • it is not spot zoning: there’s no reclassification of land, and the property is distinguishable from others
  • you can see the property shows no appearance of being a business
  • you are only authorizing the owner to go before the Zoning Board where conditions can be set
  • you can help provide the owner with financial resources to maintain the property

Here below an edited summary in Attorney Preston’s voice (remember his full presentation is available on audio):

This is not just a single-family lot but mixed use, residential and retail. The retail use is not permitted in that zone, which makes the use of the property non-conforming. The purpose here is to change the single-family dwelling use of the property to an office use. We are operating there now legally as an office with a Certificate of Occupancy granted by the Zoning Board when it permitted the change at a past time. That Zoning Board decision was appealed to the County Court, which agreed that the property could be used as a professional office. Then an appeal to Commonwealth Court reversed the County Court. As a result, the City issued an enforcement notice to vacate the building, which we will have to do if we lose this petition. We are seeking to have the local expertise and knowledge of the Zoning Board and the County Court affirmed.

We are proposing a text amendment to the zoning ordinance. We are not proposing to re-zone the property. If we’re successful, “the zoning map for the City of Bethlehem remains unchanged.” The districts stay exactly as they are. We add an “additional use to the zoning ordinance.”

(a) (1) of Section 1304.04 of the existing City Zoning Ordinance is the key section:

1304.04. Reuse of Corner Commercial Uses Allowed in the RT and RG Districts. The following uses shall be allowed in addition to uses allowed under Section 1304.01:

(a) As a special exception, uses that are small in scale, such as but not limited to a professional office, barber/beauty shop, retail store, nail salon, coffee shop, retail bakery, art gallery, real estate office, photography studio, green grocer, cafe, or antique store may be approved by the Zoning Hearing Board (“the Board”) provided all of the following requirements are met:

(1) The lot shall be at the corner of 2 streets. The primary building shall have an existing storefront character. This shall include such features as large first floor commercial window(s) and a main entrance at the corner or along one of the street facades abutting the commercial windows.

Etc

This section of the City Ordinance allows use by “text” – it does not identify any particular property or change the zoning map.

We propose to add a section b) to the current 1304.04 as above, cutting and pasting section a) with certain changes: “as a special exception, the conversion of a single-family dwelling to an office use may be approved by the Zoning Hearing Board provided all of the following requirements are met.”

This change does not say you can convert any single-family dwelling into an office. Section (a) (1) still applies, with a change: “and shall contain some form of a non-conforming retail or commercial use in combination with a single-family dwelling.”

Basically, here’s how the change will look (some final editing will be necessary) if approved. New sections bolded:

 1304.04. Reuse of Corner Commercial Uses Allowed in the RT and RG Districts. The following uses shall be allowed in addition to uses allowed under Section 1304.01:

(a) As a special exception, uses that are small in scale, such as but not limited to a professional office, barber/beauty shop, retail store, nail salon, coffee shop, retail bakery, art gallery, real estate office, photography studio, green grocer, cafe, or antique store may be approved by the Zoning Hearing Board (“the Board”) provided all of the following requirements are met:

(b) As a special exception, the conversion of a single-family dwelling to an office use may be approved by the Zoning Hearing Board provided all of the following requirements are met:

(1) The lot shall be at the corner of 2 streets. The primary building shall have an existing storefront character and shall contain some form of a non-conforming retail or commercial use in combination with a single-family dwelling. This shall include such features as large first floor commercial window(s) and a main entrance at the corner or along one of the street facades abutting the commercial windows.

Etc.

The ordinance as changed is limited in scope. It will not be available to any properties that are simply single-family dwellings. We are adopting the methodology and rationale that the City already uses. We are not trying to introduce something new or untested. We are aware of the doctrine of unintended consequences.

Now we’d like to address some of the questions that will come up. There are three categories: legal issues, policy issues, and practical considerations.

Legal: This is not spot zoning. Spot zoning is “singling out of one lot or a small area for different treatment from that accorded similar surrounding land indistinguishable from it in character for the economic benefit of the owner of that lot or to his economic detriment.” Certainly, the petition benefits the petitioner, nothing wrong with that – there’s an “absolute right” to petition for change. That’s allowable. So economic benefit does not make this spot zoning. The real question is does it single out a single lot and is that lot indistinguishable from surrounding properties. Precedent: spot zoning involves land classification, this proposed change does not. In order to have spot zoning you have to rezone the piece of property. In addition, that property is different, is distinguishable in character from the surrounding property: it is a non-conforming, mixed-use property. There’s no other near it in that location.

Zoning Board and Northampton Court found no harm to public welfare from use as an office.

Practical: the property is being used for the intended use of this petition, and you can go look at it. We’re not asking the City to take a flyer and hope something good comes out of it. You’d be hard-pressed to tell that’s a business in there.

This amendment deals with a property that is unique and thus is not spot zoning. The amendment does not authorize the use as an office but only authorizes the owner to apply for a Special Exception from the Zoning Board and conditions can be placed on the owner, whatever they feel is in the best interest of the City of Bethlehem. This amendment applies exclusively and solely to properties that are non-conforming mixed use. And it is good planning sense to allow such property owners some options to provide the financial resources to maintain those properties, particularly those in the historic district.

Next will be Kori Lannon’s presentation.

2 W. Market St. heading to City Council (13)

(13th in a series of posts on 2 W. Market St.)

Here is the latest of our “neighborhood” issues heading for a decision.

The focus is the residential property at 2 W. Market in the Northside Historical District, a parcel that also includes commercial property fronting on New St. You’ve all no doubt passed the property a hundred times, and maybe even remarked about it. Corner of New and Market.

To recap: The owners would like to use the residence for business purposes as an office for their financial services operation. The owners have petitioned for a change in the Bethlehem Zoning Ordinance. There is some history to the dispute over this property going back several years and several adjudications that readers can follow in previous posts in this sequence. But this is a fresh case.

Gadfly has previously indicated some distress at incomplete understanding from coming late to this controversy. It looks now, however, that there will be plenty of information. The Planning Commission meeting last Thursday was several hours long and particularly full of information and perspectives.

In past history the owner’s case has been both approved and rejected. And the Planning Commission just deadlocked twice 2-2 on the present petition. Now the petition goes to City Council for a hearing November 20.

The issue is significant. And it is obviously a close call.

That’s what makes it so interesting.

Gadfly likes to think of his audience as intelligent, thoughtful, deep thinkers who are willing to walk with him through the different angles of this case and provide opinions that might help inform Council’s decision.

As will be our usual procedure, Gadfly will present information first without comment or analysis, and in small chunks, so you can absorb that information and form your own questions and opinions.

Follow me, Gadfly says, as we first try to understand the owner’s position.

“Makes no sense to me” (73)

(73rd in a series of posts on parking)

The parking system in Bethlehem: the mayor has responsibility for meter rates, the City Council for fines, and the Bethlehem Parking Authority for the parking lots.

Councilman Callahan

“When the Parking Authority was created, who came up with the rules that the mayor takes care of the meters and City Council takes care of the fines. . . . Who made the rules and how could they possibly be changed?”

Mayor Donchez

“I think the answer to your question is that I really don’t know. But what I assume is this. The Parking Authority used to be within the Police department, and I think we are probably talking about 1960s or early 1970s. It was removed, set up as an independent Board with an executive director hired by the Board to be less political and having all the tickets fixed within City Hall. And I think that the key reason was the Authority could take out bonds. I would think that when they established the Board, they came up with the trifecta, which makes no sense to me, to be very honest with you.”

Councilman Callahan

“I don’t agree with the structure. . . . I have no idea how it came up. . . . I don’t know if it can be changed or whatever.”

Sounds like homework for an historian to me.