Diocese appeals decision preventing demolition of Bethlehem home

Posted: 5:27 PM EDT Mar 19, 2013

The Catholic diocese of Allentown is taking the city of Bethlehem to court over a decision that stopped the diocese from demolishing a home in a historic west side neighborhood.

The diocese filed a civil suit Tuesday in Northampton County Court asking that a Feb. 19 city council decision about a vacant home at 1304 Spring St. be reversed.

The diocese wants to tear down the two-and-a-half story, 19th century house next to its Holy Family Manor nursing home because it is too costly repair. Most of the land would be used as green space and some of it for a parking lot.

Several neighbors of the property in the Mount Airy section lobbied city council in February to back its Historic Conservation Commission's recommendation to block the diocese's plan. They said that the diocese was practicing "demolition by neglect," and they also were fearful that if the diocese was permitted to raze the home, the Trexler Pavilion, another historic structure on the Holy Family Manor grounds, would be next.

The diocese filed paperwork on Nov. 12, 2012 asking for permission to tear down the home. The commission met three times over the next two months, and decided, by a 4-3 vote on Jan. 28, 2013, to recommend that council deny the diocese's application.

The diocese in its suit says the commission was 16 days late in acting on the diocese's application, violating state law and a city ordinance that says a decision must be reached in 60 days.

The suit says the commission erred in denying the diocese's application because some members wanted a commitment from the diocese to better maintain their historic buildings on the Holy Family Manor property. Such a request "is unrelated to the legal basis" on which the commission is allowed to make a recommendation, according to the suit.

The commission also erred, the suit says, by not presenting any factual information contradicting the finding of the diocese's historic preservation specialist, architect George J. Donovan, that there would be a "minimal impact" on the Mount Airy district if the home were demolished.

And while the diocese established that the cost of repairs to the home would be $220,200 -- almost $60,000 more than what the market value of the home would be after the repairs were made -- no information to the contrary was presented either before the commission or city council, the suit says.

The city's building code official, Philip Roeder, who is also a commission member, voted to allow the demolition because of the condition of the building after housing inspectors put together a list of its deficiencies, the suit points out.

The judge should allow the diocese to knock down the home because the cost to repair it is "economically burdensome, unreasonable and prohibitive," and constitutes "an unreasonable economic hardship," according to the suit.