Inside Your Town

Bethlehem Council approves zoning change for expansion of retirement community

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A zoning change that will allow the Kirkland Village retirement community to expand on nearly five acres of vacant land unanimously was approved by Bethlehem City Council early Tuesday evening.

Kirkland Village is off Madison Avenue on the north side of town. It is directly behind the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, which faces Center Street.

Seventy-two apartment units housing about 115 retirees are being proposed for the project, which is only at the initial sketch plan stage.  A total of six buildings are being proposed, each holding 12 units.

"Our plans for this land are consistent with what we currently do at Kirkland Village," said James Bernardo, chief operating officer of Presbyterian Senior Living, which owns the continuing care retirement community. "It will be an extension of the same type of product."

Although the property's address was listed as 2344 Center St. on council's agenda, that is the church's address. The 4.77 acres the church is selling to the operators of Kirkland Village actually are landlocked, meaning the property is not along any city street.

All access to the new section will be through Kirkland Village, said Andrew Bohl, engineer for the proposed expansion.

Bernardo said Kirkland Village was developed 20 years ago.

City Council voted to change the zoning of that tract from institutional to residential retirement complex (RRC).

Karen Dolan was the only Council member to ask questions about the proposed project before that vote.

"I can't understand anything else being there," concluded Dolan, who lives nearby. "It makes total sense. The only institutional development that would make any sense would be something First Presbyterian Church would want to do. But if First Presbyterian is selling it to its neighbor as part of its mission, its ministry, it makes complete sense that it would be absolutely right to be rezoned.

"I'm very happy to see it expand."

Not everyone in the audience shared Dolan's enthusiasm.

Changing the zoning would violate the state's Municipalities Planning Code, Bethlehem's zoning ordinance and other state laws, contended Atty. Mike Peters, who was representing unidentified owners of properties at 2349 Linden St. and 1830 Center St. in Bethlehem.

Peters maintained changing the zoning contradicts the city's 2008 comprehensive plan and its 2012 overhauled zoning ordinance.

Resident William Scheirer complimented Peters on his creativity, but said there has been no violation of the comprehensive plan or the city's new zoning ordinance.

Scheirer said he worked on committees that developed Bethlehem's comprehensive plan as well as the zoning ordinance and the issue of rezoning that piece of property never came up.

 "Any comprehensive plan, any zoning ordinance, is not chipped in stone," said Scheirer.

He said the proposal "is a worthwhile use for the city, especially for the people who can afford it."

Peters said the property owners he represents are concerned about traffic impacts. Bernardo said 60 percent of current residents at Kirkland Village have cars.

Peters also said that parcel is one of the only remaining vacant properties still zoned institutional, which makes it one of the most important zoning districts in the city. He said such zoning districts are for large education, medical, or other public institutions and changing the zoning will impact future needs for institutional zoning.

But Bohl said the area being rezoned already is bordered on two sides by RRC zoning.

Bohl said buildings can cover 65 percent of a property under institutional zoning, but only 25 percent under RRC zoning. He also said setbacks are more restrictive in  RRC zones.

Also mentioned was that residential units are not permitted in districts zoned institutional.

Also expressing "concern" about the project was David Harte, vice president of Abe Atiyeh's Pennsylvania Venture Capital, who said his company owns two pieces of property near the proposed expansion.

Before the project briefly was described in response to Dolan's questions, Harte said council would be approving rezoning without seeing any plans for a lot that has not yet been created.

But Bohl of Bartonsville-based Hanover Engineering Associates, who represented Kirkland Village, said the property has been subdivided to separate it from the rest of the First Presbyterian Church property.

Bohl also said the city has been given sketches of the proposed expansion. He said the city's planning commission recommended approval of the rezoning request in June and added the city's planning bureau also supports the change.

"No plans have been made public for what is proposed," maintained Harte. "Depending on what's proposed, we may be very much in favor of this. But at this time we don't have a way of offering an opinion one way or the other."

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