ALLENTOWN, Pa. - One by one property owners shared their stories of financial hardship, lost jobs, hours cut, and just being flat out broke in Allentown, where even the mayor admits, poverty is the city's biggest problem.
But the property owners left City Hall shocked after the Allentown Planning Commission denied their requests for a break from a city ordinance that will cost each of them $8,000 to $10,000 for the installation of new sidewalks on their properties.
They have no sidewalks now and the city requires they get them.
Their unexpected encounter with the city's sidewalk ordinance grew out of a plan to re-pave Cumberland Street, and the process that followed zeroed in on properties without sidewalks.
Their hard luck stories carried no weight, at least legally speaking, with the commission, which Chairman Oldrich Fouchek III stated repeatedly throughout the meeting was bound by the ordinance, not emotions.
"We're not the policy makers," Fouchek said.
Their financial situation would play no role in the commission's decision, Fouchek reminded the property owners who went on to tell the board they did not have the money.
Troy Walker said he wasn't asking for much.
"All I want is my yard the way it is," said Walker who lives on a corner property that has a grass strip running the length of the house, along with a shrub and a tree that he said has been there longer than he has been alive.
Walker, who said he lost his job and his wife had her hours reduced, said he never would have bought the house 13 years ago if he knew about the sidewalk problem.
The commission reserved judgment on his request, pending an on-site inspection.
Diane Cheer tried to get the same break Walker was seeking and made an impassioned plea for help.
Cheer called the city's move " unconscionable … in these economic times."
She said she called the White House to get the city to back off.
Another man in the audience, Mario Pantojas, said he called The White House, too.
Pantojas bought the property less than four months ago, and said he was told by the realtor he did not have to worry about the lack of sidewalks.
Francine Enright told the commissioners she is too old to take on new debt.
"At 71, I can't afford it," she said. If there are any real dangers in the neighborhood, she said, it isn't from the lack of sidewalks.
"We are in danger of our own street," she said, referring to the speeders and heavy traffic. As for the sidewalk bill, she said, "It's not fair."
Without the commission granting a "sidewalk postponement ," the property owners are faced with one of two decisions: either hire a contractor to do the work, or the city will pick one for them, get the job done and place a lien on their property until the bill is paid.
In other action, the commission approved a zoning change for the former LSI Building, 555 Union Boulevard, from limited industrial to an "Innovation and Workforce Development Zone."
Michael Hefele, the city's planning director, said the building's new owners are planning on a charter school and "various public uses," for training and research on the property.
The commission also approved plans for a new Dunkin' Donuts on Lehigh Street. Owner Kishor Dalsania said he expects it to open in August or September.
He said he owns six others, three in Allentown and others in Fogelsville, Trexlertown and Quakertown.
Allentown, PA 18102