After years of work, meetings and discussions, Bethlehem should have a new zoning ordinance by early August.
“We’re nearing the end of a long road,” said City Council President Eric Evans.
The new law is not without its controversial aspects, as revealed during a public hearing on the ordinance that lasted more than an hour before City Council Monday night.
One major concern debated at the hearing is whether a section of the ordinance will erode residential neighborhoods throughout Bethlehem, including the mid-city historic district, by allowing businesses to set up shop in certain corner properties.
Some residents said they thought the change would only allow corner grocery and similar stores to serve that neighborhood, not “intrusive businesses” such as sports bars or even tattoo parlors that might be open until late at night.
Resident John Brew told council he wants to move his financial consulting business to 476 New St. and promised to maintain the building at the same level of quality as it was when built in 1840. He said some large historic homes in the city’s residential neighborhoods now have become poorly maintained apartment buildings.
But resident Tim Stevens, a lawyer who lives in the historic district, warned council there will be legal challenges if that part of the new zoning ordinance is not changed. If unchanged, he said, the law will eviscerate residential zoning districts all over the city. Stevens told council: “We ask you to amend it and amend it right away.”
Representatives of two billboard companies --- Lamar Outdoor Advertising and Adams Outdoor Advertising -- also debated whether digital billboards should be 500 or 1,000 feet apart. The proposed law requires 1,000 feet between such signs. Lamar opposes it – it wants the requirement to be 500 feet -- but Adams supports it.
One resident said the zoning law should be amended to promote single-family housing in south Bethlehem rather than student housing.
Evans said the new zoning law has strong support on council and he is optimistic it will replace the previous zoning ordinance, which has been on the books since 1970.
Evans said city council will cast its first votes on the zoning ordinance after its first reading at council’s July 17 meeting. The zoning law will be up for final approval at council’s Aug. 7 meeting, he said, which will begin at 5:30 p.m. because of Musikfest. The council president anticipates the ordinance will be approved at both meetings.
In another zoning matter during its meeting Monday, council voted to require that residential treatment facilities, overnight shelters and temporary shelters must be at least 1,000 feet from the property lines of schools, public parks or playgrounds, daycare centers or college or university campuses.
With two of council’s seven members absent, the change passed by a 4-1 vote. Council vice president J. William Reynolds cast the only no vote.
Before the vote, Reynolds said the proposed new zoning ordinance will require only a 500-foot buffer, which “I feel is less exclusionary. The 1,000-foot buffer will prove to be too exclusionary. It opens us up to potential litigation.”
But Evans supported the change, saying “we need to send a clear message that residential treatment facilities, while needed, are needed at locations that are away from the most important and protected areas” for children, such as schools and playgrounds.
Evans agreed a 1,000-foot buffer may be exclusionary but added 500 feet also may be considered exclusionary: “Five hundred feet won’t necessarily have us win any possible lawsuit, 1,000 feet won’t automatically make us lose a possible lawsuit.”
Evans said council voted 6-0 in favor of the 1,000-foot requirement on first reading at its last meeting. Reynolds said he was not at that meeting.
Evans noted council has not yet had even a first reading on the overhaul of the entire zoning law. He indicated that could lead to debate, delays and even sending the proposed ordinance back to the city’s planning commission. The council president wanted fast action on the 1,000-foot requirement because “we’ve seen what can happen in a matter of a couple of weeks with residential treatment facilities’ applications here in the city.”
Council member Jean Belinski told Evans she agreed with him 100 percent.
Voting yes with Evans and Belinski were council members Robert Donchez and Michael Recchiuti.
Council members Karen Dolan and David DiGiacinto were not at the meeting.
The public hearing on the new zoning law began with a presentation by Darlene Heller, the city’s planning and zoning director. She said many public meetings have been held on the proposed ordinance and it was presented to a number of community and neighborhood groups. She also said the city also assembled a task force of many community representatives, which met monthly.
Heller touched on several “big picture” changes in the new law, which she maintained will make Bethlehem much more “development friendly” but also will protect existing neighborhoods.
She said one change will “provide some relief to commercial uses on corner lots,” acknowledging “this is one of the sections that has raised some questions.”
Evans said the lengthy and complex document will never satisfy all the city’s 75,000 residents. He also said it is a living document, meaning it can be amended.
Donchez said the new law has been a work in progress for nearly four years.