Some Macungie residents have to clear pedestrian obstructions

Posted: 6:07 AM EST Jan 21, 2014
Macungie Borough council

About 30 property owners in a Macungie townhouse development soon will be getting letters from the borough zoning officer instructing them to remove fences, sheds or any other obstructions that block a pedestrian easement behind their properties.

Those people are violating the borough’s zoning ordinance, said Macungie Solicitor Patrick Armstrong at Monday night’s borough council meeting.

They will be given until April 30 to “remedy” the situation by removing the obstructions.

The blocked pedestrian easement is behind homes in Village Walk, a townhouse development just north of the CVS Pharmacy along Route 100.

The homes are along Village Walk Drive, a looping road off Brookfield Drive. Those with the most violations are on the outer side of that loop, according to borough manager Chris Boehm.

Armstrong said the borough’s zoning law states no structures can be installed or constructed within pedestrian easements that obstruct the purpose of those easements.

He said a fence that encroaches one, two or three feet into the easement probably is not in violation. But a fence or shed that crosses the entire easement and leaves no room for pedestrian traffic is in violation.

Council member Debra Cope, who lives in that neighborhood, doesn’t have a backyard shed. She keeps the lawn mower in her garage in the front of her house and uses the pedestrian easement to push it back to her backyard.

“We have to be able to get behind people’s properties,” she explained. “If I can’t get around those properties, I can’t get into my yard.”

Boehm said another resident wanted to put a deck on the back of a home, but the contractor could not get through to do the work.

Boehm explained residents own the easements, but cannot build on them.

Armstrong said some easements in that neighborhood are 10 feet wide, others are 15 feet wide.

Last summer, more than 120 property owners in the neighborhood were sent letters about the encroachment issue by Brian Nixon, the borough’s zoning officer.

Since that time, the zoning officer has inspected all the properties to determine which are in violation of the zoning ordinance.

“There clearly are not 120-some people in violation,” said the solicitor.

All those property owners soon will be getting another letter from the zoning officer, said Armstrong.

Some will be told they are not encroaching on the easement. Some will be told they are encroaching, but not to the extent that they are violating the zoning ordinance. And some – probably 20 or 30 --will be told they clearly are in violation and must remove the obstructions.

“Nothing has gone out yet,” said Armstrong, who predicted letters will be sent in a week or two.

The solicitor said some other property owners in that neighborhood will be getting a different kind letter, telling them they installed fences without getting permits from the borough -- even if those fences are not encroaching on the pedestrian easement. He said they will be required to get those permits by next month.

Concerned about hearing complaints from residents once those letters are sent, council president Chris Becker asked Armstrong if some criteria has been developed to determine “this is the point where it’s blocked.” Without such criteria, he questioned the fairness of how those judgment calls will be made.

Becker also asked if other people want to erect a fence that partially goes into that easement in the future, will the borough say they have to stay out of it completely or will it allow them to go as far into as some of their neighbors already have done?

Armstrong said all new applicants will have to stay out of the easement.

He also said even individuals getting letters telling them they are not being required to remove anything by April are being put on notice that they will to remove them if in the future the borough does decide they also are obstructing the easement.

“If you’re obstructing it by one or two feet, it’s not giving you a free pass,” said the solicitor.

Saying those homes have been there for about 25 years – another resident said 28-- council member David Boyko asked if a complaint from a resident spurred the action being taken by the borough. He was told there was such a complaint.

Fire department vs. fire company

Also during the council meeting, a settlement was announced in a lawsuit between Macungie Volunteer Fire Department, the borough’s volunteer firefighters, and Macungie Fire Co. No. 1, the social club.

The dispute involved ownership of the property, which the two organizations share.

Atty. James Kratz, who announced the Jan. 8 settlement agreement, said ownership of the entire fire station at 31 S. Walnut St. has been transferred to the fire department and a lease for part of the building has been given to the social club, which will remain there “subject to the terms and conditions of the lease.”

“The closing just took place this past Friday,” said Kratz.

The lawyer, who represented the fire department in the litigation, said “unfortunately” the legal fight cost a lot of money.

Kratz charged the social club purposefully delayed litigation to drive up legal costs in hopes the fire department “would go away. Obviously, that did not happen.”

Business owner Tim Romig said he was told the case cost the fire department alone more than $70,000 in legal fees.

Borough council was told none of the $40,000 in tax dollars that Macungie contributes to the fire department was used to pay for that litigation, but came from another fund earmarked for the purchase of a future fire truck.

“I don’t know what our donation is being spent on,” said Cope. “We’re not seeing the whole picture.”

Two people at the council meeting argued the fire department should make its complete budget available to the public through borough council.

Kratz told council the fire department is not required to share all its financial information with the borough, but only has to account for the money the borough provides to the department.

Becker said he didn’t think council has the right to see the non-profit fire department’s full budget.

“You can request it,” said Armstrong. “The question is whether or not the volunteer fire department would provide it.”

“All I can do is request,” said Becker. “We’re going to make the request. But I can’t guarantee they’ll answer my question.”

But the council president also said council should not just single out the fire department, but also consider requesting such information from other entities that receive contributions from the borough.

Council member Greg Hutchison felt getting a full budget from the fire department, including total donations, is beyond the realm of borough council. “There’s no way we should get into that.”

Boyko said in years past, any time the fire department wanted to spend money contributed by the borough, it would get a voucher and borough officials would write a check.

Addressing the fire department, Boyko said: “Council thanks you for your work. There’s nobody here on a witch hunt.”