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.”

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

Emergency shelter for the homeless not permitted to open early

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A post on the Next Door Mauch Chunk blog urges residents to attend the November 19 City Council meeting to discuss this.

Sara Satullo, “Complaint forces Bethlehem cold-weather homeless shelter to ditch early opening amid frigid temps.” lehighvalleylive.com, November 15, 2019.

Bethlehem’s emergency shelter for the homeless hoped to open for the season early due to the Lehigh Valley’s deep freeze but a neighbor complaint thwarted the effort.

In 2017, the shelter at Christ Church United Church of Christ, 72. E. Market St., got zoning approval to operate from Dec. 1 to March 31 each year. On average, the church houses 65 men and women from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. each night.

Posts on the group’s Facebook page indicate the shelter hoped to open on Friday evening as the region’s been gripped by frigid air with temperatures dropping well-below freezing at night. Overnight temperatures Friday and Saturday are set to dip to lows of 26 and 25 degrees.

But it seems a neighbor complained, forcing the shelter to adhere to the schedule approved by the Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board.

“All of us who support BES and our mission to serve our street neighbors are deeply disappointed in the situation that forced us to delay our opening until December 1. However, the board is requesting that people refrain from making any disparaging comments about those in the neighborhood or others who have voiced concerns about the shelter,” Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering board chair Rodney Conn said in a statement posted on the group’s Facebook page. “We have and continue to work with the community to ensure that the Shelter operations provide security to our neighbors, the Church, our volunteers, and our guests. Thank you for your cooperation.”

The nonprofit group began hosting rotating shelters for men and women at area churches in 2009. It was a realization of a dream when in December 2017 the nonprofit opened a permanent co-ed shelter in the heart of the city’s Historic District.

The shelter and the city began requiring anyone staying at the shelter to first register at the nearby police station to obtain a voucher last year in response to neighbor complaints. Police run a criminal check to ensure a person does not have outstanding warrants or is a sex offender.

The church also hired professional security guards last year and installed surveillance cameras in response to neighbor complaints.

Discussion of the golf course budget drifts off the fairway

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Before going any further, Gadfly invites you to spend a light few minutes with the public comment by Jack Hoy (Huy?) at the last City Council meeting.

82-year-old Mr. Hoy gave us all a few chuckles as, bringing several clubs as exhibits, he proclaimed his pride and appreciation in the Bethlehem Golf Course that signaled the dramatic, positive change there over the past year.

Hoy was such a great warm and sincere salesman for this major part of our recreational system that at Wednesday’s budget hearing Council members quipped that he was a plant by Business Manager Eric Evans to support the Golf budget statements.

You might remember that back in 2018 the golf course was a hot issue. It was losing money and deteriorating in quality. Should we sell it, lease it, dedicate a pot of money to it??  Tricky issue. And a high priority for many vocal residents.

There was a meeting in which Town Hall was filled with angry and concerned golfers, the like of which Gadfly hadn’t seen and won’t soon forget.

Business Manager Eric Evans seemed to take charge of the course’s fate, advocating for a viable future path. The decision was to make the course operate as a business and to be self-supporting, and Larry Kelchner — a retired businessman — was hired to manage the course.

Mr. Kelchner was impressive at the budget hearing Wednesday, and the performance of the course over the year has even changed Councilwoman Van Wirt’s mind about it — because last year she was skeptical about the course’s future.

So Mr. Kelchner pretty much simply received plaudits and engaged in congenial conversation till it was if someone stepped on a landmine unobtrusively planted in a fairway and for several minutes the meeting blew up.

Please go to the City video of Wednesday’s budget hearing #2, part 4 min. 21:20 to the end and part #5 up to min. 12:15.

You know that an important part of Gadfly’s mission is to help and encourage you to know your Councilpeople so that when it comes time to vote you are doing so as well informed as you can be.

This 15 mins. is well worth viewing in this respect.

Councilman Callahan raised a legitimate question about the difference in cost between adults and kids for greens fees and season passes but not at the driving range and claimed that was driving (no pun intended) kids away from golfing there.

For instance, a round of golf on the 18hole course is $24 for adults, $16 for kids, but at the driving range it’s $10/bucket for both — same price. At one point BC seemed to be asking for a reduction to $5, on the grounds that the differential in the other fees made the case that we recognized that kids can’t afford the same as adults.

And, said BC, the consequence was that the kids were not using the facility because of the cost — kids whom BC wanted there to keep them off the streets.

So far so good.

On its face, that is not unreasonable.

Then things went out of bounds.

At one one point BC seemed to be saying that there were no kids at the course because of this fee differential while LK was saying that there were plenty of kids there.

In answer to BC, EE and LK said the fee at the driving range was “industry standard” and documented various examples of their generous involvement with and solicitation of junior golfers.

But BC wouldn’t seem to accept that explanation and pressed on.

Tension escalated when Councilwoman Van Wirt tried to get the discussion to move on, which met with a curt response from BC, and pretty soon there were hard words between President Waldron and BC, including suggestions that BC was arguing for special interests — for example, “paving” was mentioned, seemingly totally unrelated to the golf discussion.

Odd. Where did that come from? One of those times where other people know things you don’t. Other issues bubbling under the surface. And you feel left out of the conversation.

Paving?

Gadfly was not sure of what AW spoke, but he immediately thought of BC at the first budget hearing indicating twice that major road work was needed. Major paving.

Had BC been promoting paving interests there?

In any event, BC was rather heatedly defensive, and protested unfairness.

Now Gadfly — as always — suggests you go to the tape yourself and make judgment if judgment needs to be made.

Perhaps Gadfly will only say that there is a “history” of BC interactions with Council members that has resulted in short fuses among his colleagues.

Tempers escalate quickly.

After a previous Council flare-up involving BC (the Zoning Board nomination issue about which Gadfly devoted 10 posts), Gadfly responded to President Waldron’s invitation (to us all) to comment on the way he handles discussion.

Gadfly suggested that President Waldron consider a discussion rule based in Roberts Rules:

  • a limit of 10 minutes, then others are given an opportunity to speak
  • after others have spoken or passed on the opportunity to speak, another 10 minutes
  • any further 10-minute time after that only with majority vote of the other Council members

After you view the tape of this heated episode, however, Gadfly suggests that you go back and bask in Mr. Hoy’s ray of golf course sunshine again.

Gadfly bets his game is as sharp as his wit.