NORTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. - Wednesday night's North Whitehall Township Zoning Hearing Board meeting about a mobile barbeque pit really stoked some people who witnessed it.
After two sizzling hours of testimony, questions and discussion, Tex Wells, the proprietor of Tex's Smokin' Bar-B-Q, still doesn't know if he can continue to operate his business across from the Hunsicker Funeral Home on the northwest corner of Route 309 and Shankweiler Road.
Zoners agreed to continue the hearing May 28th, to determine whether Wells is violating the township's zoning ordinance and if they would grant him special exception relief if he is.
The continuation had nothing to do with a lack of information.
Township Manager and Zoning Officer Jeff Bartlett testified that Wells was operating the business outside the parameter of the township's zoning regulations.
Classified as Planned Commercial, the area is zoned with only limited allowed business uses and Wells' business is not one.
"A mobile food vendor is a violation of the zoning ordinance," Bartlett testified.
But Bartlett spent most of his testimony on the smoke that bellows from the enterprise, which he said is a nuisance and is also prohibited in the township's zoning code.
On days of Well's operation, typically Friday through Sunday, smoke bellows out of the stand into the "clear sight triangle" of the roadway, and clearly poses a visual hazard to motorists.
In addition, Bartlett said Well's unit is obstructing a handicap parking zone: another violation.
Under questioning, Bartlett said he had received about two dozen complaints about that smoke, including one individual who had filed a formal written complaint.
Based upon the complaints, Bartlett began a 10-month investigation, the fruits of which were presented visually Wednesday night in a series of photos presented into evidence.
The photos, taken over a period of time, with the most recent photos taken April 17th, were not shown to the vast audience who turned up for the hearing. The pictures were said to clearly show how smoke was being emitted thus violating the ordinance.
Bartlett's testimony indicated that the issue with Wells dates back to July 2012, when the first of five written notices were sent to Kevin Hunsicker, the owner of the lot where the commerce of barbequed food transpires.
This proved to be a significant issue Wednesday night because not all the notices were sent certified mail.
Some of the notices were sent prior to Bartlett's tenure as zoning officer and one digit in the zip code where the mail was being sent was incorrect.
To that end, Bartlett said that Hunsicker had in fact signed for one of the letters sent certified and that the issue was largely irrelevant since all the letters said "practically the same thing." Bartlett said he sat down face-to-face with Hunsicker and Wells to discuss the issue last month, and hence, both men knew they were in violation of the law.
Wells, who did not testify Wednesday night but did speak as he was permitted under the proceedings to ask questions of Bartlett specifically about his testimony, said that he had taken one of the two meat smokers off the site, thus reducing the amount of smoke being produced.
He asked Bartlett --hadn't Wells told him that by doing that it would "eliminate 75 percent" of the smoke problems.
Bartlett said he did not recall assigning a percentage to its removal, but agreed that it would marginalize the amount of smoke.
Bartlett reminded Wells that it was ultimately irrelevant since it did not take all of the smoke away, and thus, was still in violation of the zoning ordinance.
That argument did not impress the majority in attendance to witness the hearing or any of those who asked partisan questions in favor of the barbeque establishment Wednesday night.
In their minds at least, the township was harassing a man who is just trying to make a living.
Wells is no Johnny Come Lately, having operated his business parked just up the road from 2008 through 2012.
One such fan was a man who identified himself as Greg Pappas of Slatington, who asked Bartlett if he had taken recent pictures with the smaller smoker no longer there, implying that Bartlett was not being objective in presenting his case and was presenting photos and evidence that would corroborate the township's view.
As for the man in question, Wells sat in the first row, adorned in a jacket that promoted his business and wearing a black cowboy hat with a ponytail exposed out the back and surrounded by his supporters.
The hearing will reconvene at 7:30 p.m. on May 28th.
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