Despite appeals to delay action and threats of a legal challenge, Bethlehem City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday evening to approve a new zoning ordinance that will allow businesses on some corner properties within residential neighborhoods.
“I’m sorry you did not choose to stop this runaway locomotive,” resident Bill Scheirer told council after the vote. “Now we’re going to see how much damage happens.”
Council member David DiGiacinto cast the only vote against the ordinance. He also was the only member who voted no when the new law was presented for first reading on July 17.
After the meeting, DiGiacinto said the “flaw” in the ordinance was pointed out several months ago. He indicated he would have preferred resolving that flaw up front rather than going back and making changes after the ordinance is approved. He said the world would not have ended if the city didn’t immediately get a new zoning ordinance because it still had an old zoning ordinance.
During the meeting, DiGiacinto announced council’s community development committee, which he chairs, will discuss “zoning ordinance amendments related to corner lots” when it meets at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 in Town Hall.
Most residents who spoke against the ordinance live in the center-city historic district. They fear their neighborhood, as well as residential neighborhoods throughout the city, will be degraded by the zoning change.
Before the vote, a half dozen residents made final appeals to council.
“Members of council, you have a bad section of zoning code here,” said resident Beall Fowler. “At best, it is embarrassing. At worst, it could be disastrous. Please do not pass it. Do the right thing. Bite the bullet. Postpone your vote and fix the code.”
The controversial part of the new law –Section 1304.04—“goes against all good city planning and zoning,” said Fowler. He argued it makes no sense that a corner residential property can become commercial just because it housed a business long ago. “A property’s use many years ago has no bearing on its present use or the present environment of the neighborhood.” Fowler said the corner designation is arbitrary, discriminatory and irrelevant, adding it would make just as much sense to pick "the third house from the corner that once was painted blue."
Scheirer told council it would put residential neighborhoods all over Bethlehem at risk if it did not delay a vote and amend the ordinance. He questioned how many developers and their lawyers “are right now figuring out where they can invade residential neighborhoods.”
Resident Tim Stevens, a lawyer, again warned council there will be a legal challenge to the new zoning ordinance because that section is contrary to the purpose of a residential district. “We are quite optimistic we will prevail in overturning the act in its entirety.”
His wife, Christine Stevens, told council 1304.04 “is horrible. It doesn’t protect your residential community, which I thought was the whole point of zoning. The city is not protecting its residents.”
No one on council attempted to amend the zoning ordinance before it was approved. But Karen Dolan, the only council member who spoke before the vote, predicted council will change 1304.04, because “it is not at all what we had planned to do.” She predicted council will move to “go back to what we intended as quickly as we possibly can.”
But Dolan also argued older traditional communities such as Bethlehem have a mix of uses all in the same blocks. “That’s the beauty of the city. We’re not a suburb.You’re not only looking at houses in the downtown.”
Fowler later countered that those who live downtown value its health and vitality and don’t want to live in the suburbs. “The residential aspect of the downtown is clearly critical to the success of Bethlehem,” said Fowler. “I urge you to do what you can to protect that. It’s fragile. And it’s a very desirable area.”
Resident Robert Romeril said the city’s historic district does not need more commercial properties because it is surrounded by all kinds of nearby commercial businesses, except a grocery store.
The much-debated section 1304.04 is just one part of the new zoning ordinance, which replaces the city’s 42-year-old zoning law.
Resident Dana Grubb told council “a lot of learned, concerned and informed residents” come to its meetings but “sometimes I think they aren’t being heard.” He questioned why council passed a flawed ordinance. “The best interests of the residents of Bethlehem were not served. I sometimes have to wonder whose best interests are actually being represented when folks who raise those kinds of issues are essentially ignored.”
Resident Stephen Antalics blasted council, accusing it of “catering to the destruction of the South Side. You’re further destroying the South Side. You don’t care about the South Side.”
Antalics spoke at length against another part of the new zoning ordinance that allows up to five unrelated individuals to live in one dwelling unit. He contended that will harm south Bethlehem by reducing the number of homes owned and occupied by families.