Lawsuit filed over Bethlehem 'mom and pop' zoning

Posted: 2:29 PM EST Nov 25, 2012
Bethlehem City Council

As part of efforts to promote economic development, the city is focusing on a resurgence of “mom and pop” corner stores.

But questions over where and to what extent these businesses should be permitted in residential zones have led to a spirited debate among local officials and the filing of a lawsuit by a group of residents.

City Council is currently considering proposed ordinance amendments that would establish more regulations governing the development of "mom and pop" corner stores in residential zones. An ordinance currently permits the development of these corner stores in residential zones as long as the property had at one time served as a commercial use.

The amended ordinance proposal now before council, which includes tighter definitions, calls for allowing commercial uses that are "small in scale" and as long as the property has "an existing storefront character" such as a large first floor commercial window.

A group of eight residents -- who on Nov. 5 filed a lawsuit against the city's coning hearing board for its approval of a corner lot business under the existing ordinance -- is urging council to adopt the proposed amendments.

The proposed amended ordinance will be considered for possible adoption during the Dec. 5 City Council meeting.

The latest version of the ordinance would ban alcohol sales, tattoo parlors and onsite frying of foods. Among the amendments are provisions requiring signs comply with local historic commission standards and limiting the number of styling chairs at a beauty salon or barber shop to two.

Director of Planning and Zoning Darlene Heller said during the Nov. 20 City Council meeting that the ultimate goal is to have an ordinance that provides some flexibility to encourage the opening of small businesses, without negatively impacting residential communities. Heller noted the importance of allowing businesses that will have limited employees and visitors, since many of the corner properties do not have off-street parking.

The residents' lawsuit, filed in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas, claims that the zoning board's approval of a special exception for a proposed office use on the 400 block of North New Street failed to include a specific limit on the number of employees, although the board stated there would be no more than 10 employees.

The lawsuit claims the zoning board "refused" to allow the objecting residents "to introduce evidence with respect to parking problems, traffic congestion, safety concerns and the adverse impact upon the historic and residential character of the neighborhood."

During the Nov. 20 City Council meeting, residents involved in the lawsuit said the amended ordinance provides a much better framework for allowing appropriate commercial uses in residential areas.

"I'm quite happy with the changes as they are," Beall Fowler of Center Street said.

Market Street resident Tim Stevens, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and also the representing attorney, said the existing ordinance is "too vague" and opens the door for "intrusive" commercial development not in character with historic and residential neighborhoods. Like Fowler, he urged council to adopt the proposed amended ordinance. .

The proposed ordinance amendment is being opposed by the city's Department of Community and Economic Development, which in an Oct. 15 memo stated: "Commission members had concerns about the provisions related to tattoo parlors, the number of chairs permitted in a barber shop or beauty shop, frying of foods and language describing the physical components of the existing storefront."

Councilwoman Karen Dolan said she is concerned the provision allowing only two seats in a beauty salon or barber shop would essentially prohibit such a business from opening.

"It would be hard to run a parlor and make a profit with only two seats, even if it's small local beauty parlor," she said.